Thomas Suddes: Has Columbus replaced Cleveland as Democrats last bastion of hope?

Thomas Suddes: Has Columbus replaced Cleveland as Democrats last bastion of hope?

Updated: 3 months, 7 days, 9 minutes, 27 seconds ago

Thomas Suddes: Has Columbus replaced Cleveland as Democrats last bastion of hope?

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University.

When the votes are counted, the Senate contest between Rep. Tim Ryan, a suburban Warren Democrat, and author-entrepreneur J.D. Vance, a Middletown native now of Cincinnati, will likely fuel more debate over whether Ohio is or isn’t a political bellwether – that is, whether as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.

A win by Vance will be interpreted as a plus for former Republican President Donald Trump’s 2024 prospects. A win by Ryan will be seen as a plus for Democratic President Joseph R. Biden Jr., although political trends are like the sands of the Sahara – constantly shifting.

More:Ohio Senate race remains virtually tied in final stretch of campaign, poll shows

Come what may, it appears Ohio Democrats must re-create and bolster in growing central Ohio the voter base that Democrats had long enjoyed in shrinking northeast Ohio — before Republicans can lock up even more of suburban Ohio, especially in presidential years.

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The classical definition of Ohio politics, formulated in 1960 by political scientist Thomas Flinn, is that Ohio is a competitive two-party state in which Republicans enjoy an advantage.

Is Ohio red, blue or still purple?

And Ohio may still be that way, although in 2020, Ohio – for the first time since 1960 – failed to match the national presidential result. Instead, the state voted by a wide margin to re-elect President Trump, while the nation voted to replace Trump with Joseph R. Biden Jr. Was that 2020 vote a fluke?

In 1960, the last time before 2020 that Ohio didn’t back the presidential winner, Republican Richard M. Nixon handily carried Ohio in his race with Democrat John F. Kennedy. Nixon drew 53.3% of Ohio’s statewide vote to Kennedy’s 46.7%.

Thomas Suddes:GOP remains strong as Ohio's population shifts

Also, in 1960, Republican Nixon drew 59.4% of Franklin County’s presidential vote to national winner Kennedy’s 40.6%. That prompted then-President Kennedy to quip at a 1962 Ohio Democratic dinner, “There is no city in the United States in which I get a warmer welcome and less votes than Columbus, Ohio.” 

Now, look at 2016 and 2020. In 2016, Hillary Clinton drew 43.2% of Ohio’s presidential statewide vote – but 59.8% of Franklin’s vote. Likewise, in 2020, Biden drew 45.2% of Ohio’s statewide vote – but 64.7% of Franklin’s.

Also in 2020, though, Donald Trump narrowly carried Mahoning County (Youngstown) – part of Tim Ryan’s 2011-21 congressional district – by drawing 50.2% of Mahoning’s vote.

That was only the third time since 1932 that Mahoning backed a Republican for president; in fact, the only Greater Cleveland county besides Cuyahoga that backed Biden was Summit.

As it is, the southerly counties besides Franklin that voted for Biden in 2020 were Hamilton (Cincinnati), Athens (predictably) and Montgomery (Dayton) – and Biden’s Montgomery margin was only about 6,000 votes.

In-state population shifts (northeast to southwest) are apparent. New Ohio House districts (each with about 119,000 residents) are a good proxy for those changes.

In 1967, when Ohio’s first one-person, one-vote General Assembly met, Cuyahoga County elected 17 state representatives. Franklin elected seven. But beginning in January 2023, Franklin will have 11 state representatives in the Ohio House, and will share a twelfth with Madison and Pickaway counties. Meanwhile, Cuyahoga will have 10 state representatives, and will share an eleventh with Lake County.

More:Election 2022: Ohio House, Senate and Congress districts have changed. What district are you in?

And given massive new investments by Honda and Intel in Central Ohio, metropolitan Columbus can only grow. It’s unclear who first said that “geography is destiny,” but that’s a maxim Ohio Democrats ignore at their peril: Mobilize downstate suburbia, or wither.

The real political competition

FOLLOW-UP: Last week’s column noted that, of the 99 Ohio House seats on November’s ballot, and 17 Ohio Senate seats, 28 House candidates and five Senate candidates are unopposed. In 1982, in contrast, even 10 years into Republicans’ then-minority status in the Ohio House of Representatives, only two House districts were uncontested.

Uncontested seats aren’t the paradise term limits were supposed to create: That canning experienced legislators would lure people with new ideas to the legislature. (Yeah, experience is bad.)

But gerrymandering has rigged General Assembly districts so that only one party can win most of them. That means the real political competition is in Republican legislative primaries – which has helped give Ohio the Statehouse circus it has today.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University.