It’s not long since the Democrats last won in Ohio. Former President Barack Obama won the state in both 2008 and 2012. And in 2018, Senator Sherrod Brown won his third term. However, those high-profile victories masked a much grimmer reality in the state for the Democratic Party.
No other Democrat has won statewide office here since 2006. In 2020, Joe Biden became the first person since 1960 to win the presidency without winning Ohio — effectively ending Ohio’s frontrunner status, despite having been clear for several election cycles that Ohio was number one longer than the tipping point state that had a presidential nominee surpassing 270 electoral votes would bring. Former President Donald Trump’s 8-point victories in Ohio in 2016 and 2020 underscored how far Democrats had slipped, particularly in the state’s white, rural areas.
This year, the open-seat Senate race created by the resignation of Republican Senator Rob Portman, along with the gubernatorial race, will offer the latest test of whether Democrats can still win in Buckeye State — or if Ohio’s battleground status will continue to fade.
Rep. Tim Ryan is the front-runner who will take on anyone emerging from a packed, bitter seven-man Republican Senate primary. Meanwhile, two former mayors are competing for the Democratic nomination for a governor’s race, where the headline winner would likely go up against incumbent Governor Mike DeWine.
These candidates have broadly followed a similar approach: They focus almost exclusively on jobs and wages. Defend workers and union rights and bang on about China and free trade agreements. Stay out of the culture wars that are invigorating the Republican base.
It’s an economic message that bears unmistakable echoes of Trump and Brown.
“The Sherrod Brown model is the model for winning in Ohio,” said Aaron Pickrell, a veteran strategist for Ohio’s Democratic Party and one of the leaders of Obama’s efforts to win the state in 2008 and 2012. “I will not compare Sherrod Brown to Donald Trump. But using economic anxiety to communicate how you will help the people of Ohio manage their economic anxiety is the path to victory.”
But, strategists say, Trump and Brown’s appeal in Ohio isn’t just their message.
Both come across as authentic personalities in their own way. Brown has survived while other Midwestern Democrats have lost in part because he has spent decades cultivating a working-class brand in public life, aided by his raspy voice and wrinkled appearance. In 2018, he dramatically outperformed the rest of the Democratic statewide ticket: Brown won re-election by 7 percentage points, while DeWine won the governorship and Republicans, who voted down, won statewide offices by about 4 percentage points.
“There are many reasons Sherrod wins, and one of them is similar to why Donald Trump won Ohio: In states like this, where it’s a competitive state that has started to tilt in one direction, voters value authenticity more than anything,” he told Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who ran Brown’s 2018 campaign and is advising Ryan’s Senate bid.
“You know every time you hear from Sherrod Brown you’re getting an authentic person,” Barasky said. “You know why he’s doing what he’s doing, who he’s fighting for, that he’s in it for the right reasons. For better or for worse, they believe it in Trump too.”
“Start including workers in the deal”
This brand is difficult to build in an election cycle. But Ryan, the 10-seat congressman from Youngstown who challenged Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House of Representatives in 2016 and launched a short-lived 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, is trying.
Ryan, 48, was first elected to Congress in 2002. A frequent visitor to Ohio’s union halls, he has made stories about his family’s working-class roots a staple of the campaign. Posing as a Democrat in Brown’s footsteps, he tells the crowd that while he disagreed with Trump on a number of issues, he supported renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He has focused his campaign on an argument for policies that would force companies to “start bringing workers into the deal.”
“Ohio needs to lead the way in bringing back our supply chain, taking on China and building the things that will build our future,” he said in his opening remarks at a Monday debate at Central State University, a historically black university in Wilberforce. Ohio, east of Dayton.
Ryan travels to rural, heavily Republican areas of the state often ignored by Democrats, trying to stem the party’s bleeding there after years of Republican victories in those areas.
Ohio’s urban areas favor Democrats, but cities like Cincinnati and Columbus don’t offer the huge margins the party’s candidates receive in urban counties in nearby Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Democrats have consistently won statewide contests in recent years. Therefore, eliminating the GOP’s dominance in Ohio’s rural counties is crucial, Democratic strategists said, to return the state to competitive status.
“Tim learns what people care about, people talk about him being there, he talks to the press while he’s there. Every corner of Ohio people will know that Tim is watching out for him,” Pickrell said.
Still, Ryan has one major challenge to overcome in May before he can focus on winning a seven-way GOP primary. Morgan Harper, an attorney and former senior advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has challenged Ryan of the left.
In Monday’s debate, Harper criticized Ryan for previously earning an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and accepting campaign funds from defense contractors. She said Congress should scrap student loan debt and expand the Supreme Court — positions Ryan didn’t take.
Still, Ryan is the clear favorite, with a massive financial advantage: He ended 2021 with $5 million in his campaign’s bank account, more than 10 times what Harper had at his disposal.
This allowed Ryan to launch a $3.3 million ad buy this week – with his first 30-second spot focusing solely on China.
“We stand against China, and instead of taking on them, Washington is wasting our time fighting stupid fights,” Ryan says in the ad.
Democrats are trying to tie DeWine to social issues
DeWine, the Republican governor who has been in office for nearly 40 years — first as a local prosecutor and then as a legislature, then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, then as Ohio lieutenant governor, then as the U.S. Senate, and finally back to Ohio as attorney general , before being elected governor in 2018 — faces GOP competition in his bid for a second term.
DeWine emerged early in the coronavirus pandemic as one of the leading governors championing public health measures to slow the pandemic. But in his first elementary school television ad this week, he pushed the other direction, highlighting his efforts to get Cleveland schools to reopen in early 2021. It’s a response to pressures he’s facing from the right: former US Rep. Jim Renacci and farmer and business owner Joe Blystone are speaking out against criticism of DeWine’s handling of the pandemic, saying the actions he’s taken to close schools and businesses early went too far.
In a gubernatorial debate at Central State University the day after the Senate nominees debate, the two Democratic candidates vying for DeWine, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, focused on jobs and not on DeWine’s pandemic management.
But they also offered a glimpse of a strategy that could help Democrats win over the state’s suburban regions by dismissing DeWine and Republicans as too extreme on social issues — specifically DeWine’s decision to pass a Republican-led legislature To sign measure allowing concealed carrying of firearms without a license.
Whaley pointed to DeWine’s promise to “do something” after a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton killed nine people. “Never in my worst nightmare did I think he would actually make it worse,” she said.
Berating Republicans in state houses for exaggerations on social issues is part of Democrats’ strategy on the medium-term map, with party officials looking for ways to shift the GOP’s focus to issues that invigorate a base still devoted to Trump, versus Republicans in the general election.
“Among independents and suburban swing voters, people want the economy to do well, and they don’t want to live in this really conservative state that’s focused on social issues that don’t impact their daily lives as much,” Pickrell said.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story misrepresented the campaign that Barasky recommends. It’s Ryan’s current bid for the Senate.
https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/03/politics/ohio-democrats-midterms-economic-message/index.html Why Democrats are desperate to prove Ohio is not a lost cause