Ohio voters have picked the winner in each presidential contest since 1960 and no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. As the 2020 presidential campaigns ramp up, Democrats are fine-tuning their message to voters as they try to take back Ohio.
The night before the U.S. House voted to impeach President Trump, some 200 people gathered in the cold in Clintonville, north of Columbus. They carried mostly homemade signs, saying they wanted to send their message to Congress. Connie Spencer, who says she was a lifelong Republican who quit after Trump’s nomination in 2016, was among the group.
"I knew that somebody like that could not be president and represent all of the people," Spencer said. "You need to respect and love everyone here. Everything, from his immigration to taxes to anything he does, he’s not looking out for the people. He’s looking out for himself."
Suburbs turn blue
Democrats say that frustration has spread across the state – including to what was the reddest county in Ohio, Delaware. In a six-person race for Powell City Council this fall, Democrat Heather Karr topped the field.
"I believe that southern Delaware County is changing. I think the political landscape is changing here but I also think, because of our national politics, people are looking at politics, especially local politics, a lot differently," Karr said. "I think they are looking for someone who appears to be moderate, who looks like they can get along with people."
Democratic Party Chair David Pepper says these suburban areas, where voters have higher incomes and more education, have been turning blue. And in big numbers.
"These suburbs are now the largest voting bloc in Ohio," Pepper said. "They are the quickest growing voting bloc and they are coming our direction."
Democratic Party leaders say Trump has turned away a lot of women voters. They’re also looking at voters who helped elect President Obama, then voted for Trump, but in 2018 turned back to the most popular Democrat in Ohio. Sen. Sherrod Brown won several counties that Trump had taken in 2016 – against Jim Renacci, a pro-Trump Republican.
Brown says he knows why. "You run a campaign thinking about workers through the eyes of workers," Brown said. "You plan to govern the same way."
Democrats still struggle with voters in rural counties, who overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. But Appalachian Ohio has the highest unemployment rate in the state. So Pepper says Democrats will talk about the Ohio economy under Trump. One example: the closing of the GM plant in Lordstown. A recent redevelopment effort there could bring back 1,100 jobs, but 4,500 jobs were lost when the plant shut down.
Pepper says the strategy is not to dwell on impeachment, but focus on issues important to voters who aren’t doing so great under Trump’s policies.
"If we can continue to see the shift and build on it, and it’s largely women voters, and we narrow our losses in the more rural parts of the state where Republicans obviously do well," Pepper said.
Peg Watkins, chair of the Delaware County Democratic Party, says Democrats know getting that message of shared values out to voters will be key.
"Trump has taken the Republican party very far away from its core values. And when I say that, I’m also talking about American values because I believe the Democratic party represents the best of American values," Watkins said. "We put people first. People above monied interests."