Ohio Blowout Raises Red Flag for Democrats

Stuart Rothenberg November 23, 2010 · 11:06 AM EDT

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a column in this space (Will the Buckeye State Swing Back to the GOP in 2010?, Oct. 22, 2009) that noted Ohio’s bellwether reputation and suggested the state could see a major effort by a rejuvenated Republican Party to regain some of the ground it lost over the two previous election cycles.

That turned out to be an understatement.

Before this month’s elections, Democrats held the state’s governorship, three of the other four non-federal statewide offices, one of the state’s Senate seats, 10 of the 18 Congressional districts and the state House of Representatives. The GOP held a Senate seat, a majority in the state Senate and the office of the state Auditor.

This month, Democrats lost all of the statewide races on the ballot, including the governorship and a Senate race that once looked promising. In addition, Buckeye State Republicans swiped five U.S. House seats from Democrats and won a majority in the Ohio House.

In the Senate race, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) was annihilated by former Rep. Rob Portman (R) by 18 points, drawing fewer votes than widely dismissed former Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell did in 2006.

In this year’s race for governor, incumbent Ted Strickland drew more votes than any other Democrat on the ballot but still lost to former Rep. John Kasich by almost 3 points.

Some have credited Strickland with running one of the best races in the nation, and his relatively strong showing in a terrible year certainly is evidence of that. But if you believe the Democratic Governors Association, Kasich was so seriously flawed as a challenger than Strickland should have won easily.

In a May 4, 2010 memo, the DGA asked rhetorically, “could Republicans have possibly fielded a worse candidate than John Kasich?”

The DGA went on to bash Kasich for his connection to Lehman Brothers and for his time in Congress, referring to the Republican nominee’s “irredeemable weaknesses” and asking “is former Congressman John Kasich the worst candidate in Ohio, or the worst candidate in the country?”

If the DGA was right about Kasich, then maybe Strickland’s narrow defeat by such a damaged challenger wasn’t a sign of such a great campaign by the Democrat.

Former Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who was defeated for re-election in 2006, narrowly won the state’s Attorney General’s race over the incumbent Democrat. Former state Speaker Jon Husted (R) won the office of Secretary of State. State Rep. Josh Mandel (R) was elected state Treasurer over the appointed incumbent, and David Yost (R) was an upset winner in the state Auditor’s race.

Portman carried 82 of the state’s 88 counties, while Mandel carried 80.

The Auditor’s result was particularly disappointing for Democrats, since Yost defeated Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper (D), an Ivy League-educated former Cincinnati city councilman whose father once served as CEO of Procter & Gamble.

Pepper entered the race before incumbent Auditor Mary Taylor (R) was selected by Kasich to join his ticket as his running mate, and the Democrat was regarded as an extremely strong challenger for Taylor. In the end, Pepper couldn’t even win an open seat.

By sweeping the statewide offices and the Legislature, Republicans have assured themselves the right to draw the state’s new state legislative and Congressional lines. Moreover, the party credentialed at least three future candidates for statewide higher office: Husted, Mandel and soon-to-be Lt. Gov. Taylor.

Five Ohio Democratic Members were fired earlier this month: Steve Driehaus (1st district), Charlie Wilson (6th district), Mary Jo Kilroy (15th district), John Boccieri (16th district) and Zack Space (18th district). That left the party controlling just five Congressional districts stretching in a narrow geographic band from Toledo in the west through Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and to Youngstown in the east.

This year’s results have to concern both Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Democratic strategists in and around the White House.

Brown won his Senate seat in 2006 in a favorable environment for Democrats, and the new political reality in the state and nationally puts the freshman Democrat at considerable risk in 2012, when he will be running with President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

Of course, Republicans will need to come up with a formidable challenger, but any suggestion that Ohio has been becoming “bluer” seems to have been swept away by the Republicans’ midterm tsunami.

For Obama, Ohio remains an important state, though it’s probably more crucial for the eventual Republican presidential nominee.

Obama carried the state by almost 260,000 votes (51.5 percent to 46.9 percent) two years ago, reversing President George W. Bush’s two-point victory over Sen. John Kerry in 2004. The midterm results reflect the effect of a severe jobs recession in the state, a development that could well hurt Obama’s prospects in Ohio in 2012 if things don’t improve.

This year’s GOP victory surely overstated the party’s strength in the state, much as recent Democratic victories in Ohio exaggerated that party’s standing. The difference, of course, is that the timing of the Republican landslide was more fortuitous for the party, since reapportionment and redistricting can have long-term consequences.