Why Can’t Democrats Win in Ohio?

They’ve lost the Buckeye State—but maybe they never had it at all.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump listen to the president speak at his rally in support of Ohio Republican candidates on Nov. 5 in Cleveland.
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump listen to the president speak at his rally in support of Ohio Republican candidates on Nov. 5 in Cleveland. Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

Last Tuesday was a good night for Democrats in the Midwest. The party flipped the governor’s mansion in Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kansas, re-elected four Midwestern senators, and flipped a handful of U.S. House seats. It’s no blue wall, but it’s a foundation.

And then there’s Ohio. Aside from the re-election of progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown to a third term, Democrats did not fare well in the Buckeye State. Richard Cordray, the party’s candidate for governor, lost to Republican Mike DeWine by 4 percentage points. Democratic congressional candidates got 47 percent of the vote—an improvement over their 42 percent showing in 2016 but a worse result than the party had in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Montana this Election Day.

“New reality,” Cook Report U.S. House editor Dave Wasserman wrote on Twitter, looking ahead to 2020: Ohio is “solid red.” The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel called Ohio “formerly competitive.” If 2016 signified Ohio’s slide away from Democrats, 2018 marked its fall. Can it have happened so quickly that the country’s quintessential swing state—one that has picked the winner in every presidential election since 1960—is no longer in play? What makes Ohio so different from its Rust Belt neighbors, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which also voted for Trump but swung back hard for Democrats in this cycle?

It turns out even Ohio Democrats aren’t sure. They agree that national Democrats are the problem. But it’s the state Dems who can’t win.

It was at a town hall in Columbus in March 2016 that Hillary Clinton made the remark she later identified as her biggest regret of the campaign. Discussing her plans for renewal energy investment, she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

You know what happened next: Clinton lost Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as two other Midwestern labor strongholds, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democratic Party was plunged into a crisis over whether its push to court moderate suburban voters (on economic issues) and minorities (on social issues) had cost it the white working class. It was the election that launched a thousand wide-eyed dispatches from small-town diners and American Legion halls, stories Slate’s former politics editor disparagingly called “Cletus safaris.”

After Tuesday’s results, a lot of that Democratic handwringing seems overwrought—as long as you write off Ohio. The state set a record for off-year turnout, but Democrats didn’t reap the benefits. Wade Kapszukiewicz, the Democratic mayor of Toledo, thinks Ohio is going the way of Missouri—another onetime bellwether that drifted into GOP territory. At a convention this year he met Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose name has been floated as a potential challenger to Donald Trump. “I said, ‘Do me a favor: Never set foot in Ohio,’ ” Kapszukiewicz recalled. “I like the attention! I was a low-level county official in 2008 and I probably met Barack Obama seven times. I like the attention—but I’d rather win.” Visit the real swing states, he advised.

Why is Ohio apparently no longer one of them? Look to the Ohio River Valley. Statewide, Rich Cordray improved on the last Dem candidate for governor by more than 13 percentage points—but still lost ground in 11 counties in the state’s southeast region, sometimes by double digits. Or look to Youngstown, which come January will be represented be a Republican in the state Senate for the first time in six decades. “I don’t know how you can call [the state] anything but red,” says Dave Betras, the chair of the Democrats in Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown. “At one time a guy who showered after work and not before used to be reliably blue, and I’m not sure they are anymore.”

It’s hard to find a piece of country more transformed in the past three decades than Northeast Ohio. Once the state’s union-voter heartland, later the site of the nation’s highest unemployment rate, the region has suffered Detroit-style population loss and pivoted toward Trump in 2016. The sense there is that from NAFTA to Nancy Pelosi, Democrats have left Ohio behind. “That brand is damaged. Our party is seen as coastal and elite, and that’s a big problem in a lunch-bucket state like this one,” says Rep. Tim Ryan, who has represented a gerrymandered puzzle piece of northeast Ohio for 15 years. Barack Obama won in the wave in 2008 and narrowly again in 2012 (likely thanks to the auto industry bailout). But with union membership in the state down by nearly a third since the millennium, the labor vote—like elsewhere—has been drifting out of Democrats’ camp. As if Clinton’s coal country gaffe wasn’t bad enough, Trump countered with promises to restore and protect factory jobs—and won the state’s union vote by 9 percentage points, according to exit polls. His appeal endures.

This thesis—that the Dems left Ohio behind—has some problems. First, if it’s Democrats who have a problem, why has Ohio diverged from its neighboring states? On paper, the state at first has much in common with Michigan and Pennsylvania: All three states are similarly white, similarly urban, similarly old, similarly educated, and with a similar number of union voters. But Ohio doesn’t have a metropolis on par with Detroit or Philadelphia. Parts of northern Michigan share the rural progressive tradition of Wisconsin and Minnesota; Ohio, meanwhile, is one-quarter southern and one-quarter Appalachian.

Another theory: Ohio was red all along. The Republicans have held the governorship in Columbus for all but one term since 1991; they hold a supermajority in the state legislature, which as my colleague Christina Cauterucci noted in April, has emerged as “the vanguard of extreme anti-abortion legislation.” It’s the national Democrats who win in Ohio (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), and the state candidates—with the exception of the indefatigable Brown—who keep losing. Cast Ohio as a red-state outlier and it becomes easier for Democrats to write off their own bad performances there.

Vanessa Bouché, a political scientist at Texas Christian University who earned her Ph.D. at Ohio State, offered up a bit of Ohio exceptionalism: With the state’s many midsize cities, strong regional divides, and different economies (Ohio actually exports more soybeans than steel), it’s a hard nut to crack for a Democratic Party that typically functions as a coalition of interests.

But if Ohio is instead turning red now, it may augur what’s to come. On Twitter, reporter Alec MacGillis suggests the state’s red turn represents Democrats’ inability to compete beyond big cities. These places weren’t even lost to Hillary Clinton, who won downtown precincts in places like Zanesville, Steubenville, and Chillicothe. But Democratic numbers there are getting worse and worse—and for once, the party’s problems don’t come down to turnout. Cordray, the gubernatorial candidate, got 2 million votes on Tuesday, more than Gov. John Kasich won in his 2014 landslide when he took 63 percent of the vote. The Democrat still lost by 4 percentage points.

“It’s a competitive state,” argues Lou Gentile, a former Ohio state senator. “Any national Democrat that writes off Ohio as no longer in play is making a big mistake. At the end of Bush-Cheney, people couldn’t tear those bumper stickers off fast enough.” Gentile still thinks the party has a chance to win, epitomized by Brown’s success, if it focuses on local issues and campaigns in the state’s rural areas. He still sees the state as an opportunity for Democrats. It’s just not clear if anyone beside Sherrod Brown is up to the task.

But it might also be a warning. What if Democrats didn’t do badly in Ohio so much as they got lucky elsewhere? A huge scandal in Michigan. An unpopular governor in Wisconsin. Maybe Ohio isn’t drifting away from its neighbors, but charting their course.