Democrats seek a reset button in Ohio

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Virtually winless over the past decade, Ohio Democrats know they need something different. But actually finding that formula has eluded the party — at least, for everyone not named Sherrod Brown.

Democrats are still searching for it as they try to win an open Senate seat next year after GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s retirement cracked open the door in a race that likely would have been an afterthought otherwise.

They are throwing out plenty of ideas, with varying degrees of difficulty: sever the local campaign from the “coastal” Democratic brand; laser-focus on jobs and the economy to reclaim some lost ground with working-class whites; kindle greater excitement among Black voters to turn out in large numbers and grow the party base.

But the trends are bleak: The GOP swept every statewide office except Brown’s Senate seat over the last decade, even in strong Democratic years, and former President Donald Trump twice won by 8 points while losing the national popular vote. To reverse the pattern, Democrats need to execute together every one of those ideas and more to cover the ground they’ve lost since 2012 and contend for a key seat in the 50-50 Senate.

“Democratic candidates for Ohio on a statewide basis — and the Democratic Party — can’t do what they have been doing the past few election cycles and expect to win,” said Michael Coleman, the former mayor of Columbus.

Rep. Tim Ryan, who has flirted with statewide campaigns for a decade without ever taking the leap, said he’s “very, very serious” about the race and has been telling people he plans to run. In an interview, Ryan — who said he’ll make a final decision in the next few weeks — argued that Democrats have had to fight against the perception that the party isn’t focused on what matters to voters in Ohio. He wants to lean harder on an economic populist message, akin to Brown’s successful campaigns around the “dignity of work.”

“We’ve got a ways to go on building the infrastructure we need in Ohio. But 80 to 90 percent of the problem is and has been the national brand, the perception of what Democrats believe and stand for nationally on the coasts, versus what we stand for as Democrats in Ohio,” Ryan said.

“Most people don’t pay attention to all 10 of the hot-button issues in the country. Most people are too busy and are most concerned with their economic wellbeing,” he added. “That’s got to be the thrust of the message.”

Even if Democrats can rebuild their ravaged bench and mount a strong challenge for Portman’s seat, the national party still has to grapple with how seriously to invest in the nation’s seventh-most-populated state, which was politically closer to Montana than the neighboring swing state of Michigan in the most recent election. Other states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are much better bets to bolster their imperiled majority.

Ryan is one of just a few candidates closely looking at running who could offer Ohio Democrats something different — though that could possibly lead to a competitive and expensive primary. Amy Acton, the former director of the state health department who gained major prominence leading Ohio’s early Covid response, stepped down from a local nonprofit as she weighs a run. Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, said in an interview that she is contemplating a run for Senate or governor, though most Ohio political observers expect her to opt for the latter.

Emilia Sykes, the minority leader in the state House, is considered a potential candidate, and Rep. Joyce Beatty, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, hasn’t ruled out a bid. Either would be vying to become Ohio’s first Black senator.

Whaley downplayed any diversion from the Democratic Party platform, arguing instead that it’s about the point of emphasis.

“This is an economic populist state,” Whaley said. “There is sheer frustration both in the urban communities and the rural communities about how we’re working harder and harder and harder, and you and your community are getting further and further behind.”

For any of the candidates to win, the necessarily coalition is clear but extremely difficult to cobble together.

“The simplest arithmetic of it is: Don’t get creamed in the more rural areas, do better than average in the suburbs and turn out the cities,” said Diane Feldman, the pollster for Brown’s campaigns.

John Hagner, who worked for Brown’s campaign in 2006 and was national field director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2012, compared Ohio to Montana and Kentucky: states where national Democrats are rejected but certain candidates maintain enough local appeal to still win. He defined the winning coalition in the same terms as Feldman.

“Just in the last couple years, Ohioans have been willing to vote for Democratic candidates who sort of appeal to different parts of that coalition. The trouble has just been, how do you do a lot of hard things simultaneously?” Hagner said.


Some of the troubles have been bad timing: 2010 and 2014 were horrible years for the party nationally. But in 2018, Richard Cordray lost to GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, a former senator, by almost 4 points, even as Brown won. Whaley said in 2018, the race was “nationalized” too much.

“Issues that are happening in Columbus really need to take focus,” she said.

Liz Walters, the newly installed chair of the state Democratic Party, said it was transformative to pursue an open seat rather than face an incumbent. She pointed to the organizing on the ground in Wisconsin and Georgia as the model going forward.

Republicans’ success over the last decade has given them a much deeper bench of potential candidates. Several members of the congressional delegation are eyeing a Senate run; Jane Timken, the state GOP chair, resigned that role last week in anticipation of a potential campaign; and Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer who lost to Brown in 2012, is eyeing a bid and still has millions in his campaign account. The lieutenant governor and state attorney general passed, but Secretary of State Frank LaRose is considering it.

One GOP strategist called it a “bum rush for the nomination.” But with states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to defend, Republicans aren’t yet worried about the Ohio becoming a top-tier problem. Corry Bliss, a GOP strategist who managed Portman’s race in 2016, called the Democratic Party in the state a “laughingstock.”

“The Ohio Democratic Party is so bad they should be investigated for point-shaving,” Bliss said. “They cannot and do not know how to win.”

Coleman, who said last week he would not run for Senate, said his preference would be for a Black candidate at the top of the ticket. But he said outreach to Black voters needs to be more robust no matter what.

“It is a necessity,” Coleman said. “You can’t come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Democrat running for statewide office,’ and assume that the Black community is going to be supportive. It’s not going to happen. You have to be aggressively campaigning and outreaching and supporting the issues of Black Ohioans.”

Ryan has represented the hardscrabble Youngstown area in Congress since he was first elected in 2002, but his own margins in the historically Democratic area have shrunk along with national Democrats’, though at a slower pace. (Ryan ran about a point and a half ahead of now-President Joe Biden in the district last year after outpacing Hillary Clinton by double digits in 2016.) He said he thought his message would appeal to working-class voters regardless of race or geography and that the Democratic Party recognizes it needs to deliver with control of Congress, starting with the push to enact Biden’s robust Covid-19 plan.

"There’s going to be a void post-pandemic, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to step into that void and tilt the scales back to the working class,” Ryan said. “And again, white, Black, brown. Everyone says he’s for the white working class. I never said ‘white working class.’ That never even comes out of my mouth. It’s just like, ‘white guy from Youngstown.’ No, it’s about everybody.”

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