By Steven Conn
Photograph by Maddie McGarvey

As soon as the votes were tallied from last week’s Ohio primary elections, speculators began speculating about what it all foretold for November’s general election in the country’s ultimate bellwether state. A few of them jumped on the fact that substantially more Republicans voted than did Democrats — by roughly 200,000 — and leapt from there to dire predictions about how Democrats would fare in six months: Republicans more energized? Democrats complacent?

This is what some commentators read in the chicken entrails of May 8th. But Republicans had to decide nominees for governor and U.S. Senate, while Democrats only had to decide the former. But to say that off-year primary elections don’t tell us very much is not to say very much. So let me point to a few things I think are worth noticing about what went on in Ohio last Tuesday.

As the I-75 corridor has filled with more and more Appalachian transplants, the politics of the state has drifted more and more to the right.

First and foremost, a citizen-driven ballot initiative to curtail congressional gerrymandering passed by a whopping 50 points — 75 percent to 25 percent. Despite the status quo giving Republicans a virtual lock on 12 out of the 16 U.S. House seats from Ohio, the measure was supported by both parties — a rare bipartisan triumph in our increasingly divided politics. Though Democrats had the most to gain from congressional redistricting reform, left-leaning advocates refrained from making it a partisan issue. Now if only they could do the same for access to healthcare.

In other news, things went largely as everyone expected they would: Richard Cordray, late of President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, beat out Dennis Kucinich — the Weird Al Yankovich of Ohio politics — for the Democratic nomination for governor, and Mike DeWine, former U.S. Senator and current Ohio Attorney General, will run for the GOP.

DeWine has been a fixture of the Ohio Republican establishment since roughly the Coolidge administration and is surely the odds-on favorite right now. But then any Republican would be: the Ohio governor’s mansion has been occupied by Republicans for 20 of the last 24 years.

As bad as the gerrymandering is in Ohio — 4th worst in the nation, at least until the new reform is implemented after the 2020 U.S. census — it does not explain the stranglehold the GOP has had on statewide offices for the the last quarter-century. Two things explain that, at least as I see it.

First is organizational. The Democratic Party in Ohio has been chronically underfunded and has been rudderless as often as not. It has needed a major organizational overhaul for a long, long time. One need only look at the Democratic nominee for governor 4 years ago — a campaign people called The Wreck of the Ed Fitzgerald — to see that the party has not developed much of a farm system, and the only time the Dems won the governor’s mansion in the last 24 years was during the Big Blue Wave of 2006 (coincidentally, the same year Sherrod Brown won DeWine’s Senate seat).

At the same time, the political center of gravity in Ohio has been shifting from the northeastern/Lake Erie part of the state toward the central/southwestern corner. Columbus is now the biggest city in Ohio and the Cincinnati area just overtook Cleveland as the largest economy in the state.

The political implications of that economic/demographic shift can be summarized in a joke I heard recently. Q: What’s the capital of West Virginia? A: Columbus, Ohio. As the I-75 corridor has filled with more and more Appalachian transplants, the politics of the state has drifted more and more to the right. There are more Southern Baptist churches now in Ohio than there ever have been and Confederate flags flutter in the breeze from Portsmouth to Middletown.

And don’t expect the candidates’ personalities to play a factor: Between them, Cordray and DeWine have enough charisma to just about light up a 40-watt bulb. Given that, I suspect it will take another giant Blue Wave for Cordray to beat the septuagenarian DeWine. Which brings us, inevitably and alas, to Trump.

The most interesting aspect of the general election for Ohio governor may well prove to be DeWine’s relationship with Trump, or his lack thereof. In 2016, DeWine kept his distance. He did so quietly because he lacked the courage and probably even the convictions of outgoing Governor John Kasich, who became a leading anti-Trump voice in the GOP. But with ardent Trump supporter Jim Renacci winning the GOP nomination for Sherrod Brown’s U.S. Senate seat, DeWine won’t have the opportunity to be so quiet: Expect the president to be in the state quite often, stumping for Renacci, which could force some awkward scheduling for GOP operatives depending on whether or not DeWine decides to be seen with Trump.

If DeWine does move closer to Trump he risks putting off some voters, especially in the central and southwestern suburban and exurban regions. Will those voters vote for Cordray if they feel sufficiently disgusted with Trump? Probably not, but some of them might well stay home. And if they do, Cordray could wind up breaking that GOP stranglehold.

But then, how much can an off-year primary election really tell you?


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Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of 5 books, including most recently, Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century (Oxford University Press, 2014), which is available in a handsome paperback edition.