OPED: What color is Ohio? Only its voters know for sure

Albert R. Hunt
Bloomberg News
FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives at Springfield-Branson National Airport before attending a campaign rally in Springfield, Mo.

Missouri was recently a purple state, but it’s turning Republican red. Pennsylvania went for President Donald Trump in 2016 but it’s still a purplish shade of Democratic blue. Ohio is like one of them, but which?

Ohio long has been a key swing state. The Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each carried it twice. So did Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Trump won a surprisingly easy victory in Ohio in 2016. Republicans dominate state government and hold 12 of the state’s 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For Republicans, that’s evidence that a growing cultural conservatism like Missouri’s is turning Ohio from a purple battleground to reliably red. Democrats prefer to think that 2016 was an aberration and that former Vice President Joe Biden would have beaten Trump. They attribute the Republican House dominance to slight-of-hand partisan redistricting. In their reality, it’s more like Pennsylvania.

Who’s right?

“This November will answer that question,” said David Pepper, the state’s Democratic Party chair. He likes the Pennsylvania comparison, but acknowledges that Ohio lacks that state’s large progressive suburbs. “When I see that blue wave outside Philadelphia, I’m a little jealous,” he said.

The stakes in Ohio this year are significant: The governor’s office is on the line, and with it the leverage for the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census and possibly the future of Medicaid in the state. A couple of House seats are in play along with important state offices like secretary of state, where the power resides to push voters off the rolls.

The gubernatorial candidates are Republican Mike DeWine, the state attorney general and a veteran politician, and Democrat Richard Cordray, a former state attorney general whom Obama tapped to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis. Both Trump and Obama have been in Ohio to stump for their candidate, and both are expected back before Election Day on Nov. 6.

Trump’s decisive 2016 victory shook up the state’s political establishment. On the Republican side, there’s a bitter battle between Trump backers and the state’s well-regarded two-term governor, John Kasich. Trump commands more support among Republicans, while Kasich is more popular with the general electorate.

Illustrative of the divide, and the tightrope Republican candidates have to walk, Leslie Wexner, a longtime Republican donor and the billionaire chief executive of the Columbus-based women’s apparel and beauty company L Brands Inc., said this month that he was leaving the party because of Trump. The influential Columbus Dispatch, whose editorial page usually supports Republicans, called on more of the party’s officeholders to display the “courage” to stand up to the president.

There are signs of slippage for Trump. David Betras, the Democratic chair in working-class Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown in the eastern part of the state, was one of the first Democrats in early 2016 to say that Trump could carry Ohio and win the presidency. Today, some of Trump’s policies are popular, particularly his protectionist trade actions, Betras said, but overall “the ice is cracking” as “more voters see he’s an ignorant jerk.”(What he actually said was a little tougher than jerk, and he also called Trump a “pathological liar.”)

In the governor’s race, the candidates have big ideological differences and one trait in common: both are charismatically challenged.

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The 71-year-old DeWine is as comfortable as he is dull. He’s been running for office for 42 years, serving as a local prosecutor, state legislator, lieutenant governor, congressman, U.S. senator and attorney general, and he’s lost a bunch of races in between.

He’s a mainstream conservative who, in the face of Republican schisms, is waffling. He vehemently opposed the Affordable Care Act, including its provision for expanding Medicaid in states that wanted it, and joined lawsuits against it. But Kasich took advantage of the law to expand Medicaid coverage for 700,000 poorer Buckeye residents and now DeWine says he’s OK with that. Trying to stay on the offensive, he accuses Cordray of being soft on crime as attorney general, enabling “serial rapists.” That’s a hard sell with the Fraternal Order of Police backing the Democrat.

The 59-year-old Cordray, a brainy former law clerk to two Supreme Court justices, can come across as pedantic. He’s working to turn that into an asset, joking about being a five-time Jeopardy quiz show champion, and is running a TV commercial showing him shooting baskets with no sound and the closing tagline: “He doesn’t make a lot of noise. He just gets it done.”

Betras, the Mahoning County Democratic chair, thinks it’s working. “He’s leaning into his nerdiness, which is authentic,” Betras said.

Cordray doesn’t jest about his policy prescriptions, stressing that he was tough on Wall Street while a bank regulator in Washington.

“DeWine is a corporate Republican,” he said in an interview last week. “I am more of an economic populist Democrat.”

Polls show DeWine with a small edge. But the political environment favors Cordray: Democrats are more enthusiastic, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown is on the ticket and expected to win re-election easily, and the last time these two faced each other, in the 2010 attorney general’s race, DeWine narrowly won in a banner Republican year. It’s clear that 2018 will not be one of those.

The Republicans’ best hope may be to pray that Ohio is turning into the new Missouri.

— Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.