2018 May Be The Make-or-Break Year for Democrats and Ohio's Swing-State Status

May 9, 2018

Overall, Ohio voters stuck with the center of their political parties yesterdayin picking their statewide and congressional candidates. But the centers of Democratic and Republican politics remain well separated. We spoke with Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” about what the primary election revealed and what it portends for the fall. 

Though the national narrative says this is the year of the political outsider, that wasn’t the case in Tuesday’s Ohio primaries. Democrats went with Rich Cordray for governor, tossing aside the insurgent candidacy of Dennis Kucinich. Republicans opted for Mike DeWine despite a hard push from the right by Mary Taylor.

Kyle Kondik watches politics for a living. He’s editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. But as someone who grew up in Ohio, he also has a special interest in the state’s politics. And he says Ohio may have revealed more nuance among voters and campaigns.

“In an era where I think we’re paying a lot of attention to insurgent movements in both political parties, sometimes the old-fashioned strengths are the things that carry the day.”

That comes down to things like money and establishment-party support and both gubernatorial nominees – Democrat Rich Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine -- had that.

Kondik says the national insider-outsider narrative may be overplayed with both parties, “though I do think it’s more of a real thing on the Republican side than the Democratic side.” Candidate and now President Donald Trump, he says, is a primary example of that; “he won in part because he outraged the leadership.” But in gubernatorial primaries, Kondik says it often pays to have party connections.

Blue wave?
Democrats had hopes strong early voting numbers portended a blue wave; but in the end, far more Republicans pulled ballots than Democrats Tuesday. And overall turnout was just 21 percent, better than 2014 but worse than 2010.

Kondik says the higher GOP turnout may be in part a product of more intense primaries for governor and congressional seats, and a contested U.S. Senate primary. But he says it also seems to be established now that Democrats are early voters.

“If you’ll remember in watching the 2016 elections returns early in the night … made it seem that Ohio was going to be basically a 50-50 state, but then as Election Day votes came in, it was clear that Republicans had severely out-voted Democrats.”

Is Ohio a Trump state?
GOP Senate candidate Jim Renacci said repeatedly Tuesday that Ohio is now a Trump state. Kondik isn’t so sure. He acknowledges Trump is more popular here than in the nation overall, but says that still would be down around 50 percent approval rating.

“Which is OK, but certainly isn’t great. And midterms often break against party in the White House. And I don’t know if sort-of clutching Trump in the midterm environment is necessarily the best strategy for Republican candidates. That’s not to say they need to be critical of him, but I don’t know that the electorate that comes out on Election Day is going to really be incredibly supportive of Trump. It may be more of a mix and that may give Democrats a opportunity ti win one or more of the big statewide offices.”

But Kondik says 2018 may determine whether Ohio really is still a swing state.

“If they (Democrats) can’t make up significant ground in the state, re-elect Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate, win one or more of the executive offices, make up ground in the state Legislature … in an environment that might otherwise would be friendly to Democrats nationally, it does call into question the Democrats ability to win statewide in Ohio.”

Kondik says one other issue voters passed overwhelmingly Tuesday – changing how Ohio draws its congressional districts – may shift some of the Republican/Democrat dynamic. But that won’t take effect until after the 2020 Census.