Bellwether no more: Ohio's Republican strength falls out of step with nation

Nov. 13—Tuesday night's election results solidified total Republican control of Ohio, even as the party failed to make major gains elsewhere — a clear sign to many that Ohio's longtime status as a national political barometer is over.

"Ohio was not a bellwether at all on Tuesday night," said Christopher Devine, University of Dayton assistant professor of political science. Early returns here and in Florida — another former swing state — gave the impression of Republican strength nationwide. But the picture changed dramatically as other states reported, he said.

Democrats lost fewer U.S. House and Senate seats than many predicted and took several governor's offices. But Ohio's results did not match the national pattern: here Republicans increased their margins of control across the board.

In the past few elections Republicans have captured about 54% of the state's votes. This time their average in statewide races grew to about 60%, according to unofficial results. Just over half of the state's 8 million registered voters cast ballots, high for a midterm election.

Ohio's shift hasn't been sudden: statewide offices and presidential results have been Republican for years, Devine noted. It's been driven in part by loss of manufacturing jobs and a population that is older and less diverse than much of the country, he said.

"Donald Trump's brand of Republican politics seems to have particular appeal in states like Ohio," Devine said.

Republican strength has grown as the party made inroads with white working-class voters in rural counties — and that's a proportionately larger share of Ohio's population than in otherwise similar states like Pennsylvania, said Lee Hannah, Wright State University associate professor of political science.

"There are several counties that have swung by 20 to 30 points towards the Republicans since Trump's election," he said. "The question moving forward is going to be if the Democrats can make enough inroads in the suburbs to offset their losses in the rural areas."

Mark Caleb Smith, professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, plus perhaps Georgia and North Carolina, are filling Ohio's former battleground role.

"I don't think Ohio is anything other than a conservative-ish state," he said — probably leaning "center-right."

"And I don't see that changing anytime soon," Smith said. "What caused it? I think that's a great question. Probably the most important thing is that rural Ohio counties used to be competitive. Then they used to be marginally Republican. Now they've become overwhelmingly Republican.

"Now why did the rural counties tip? There's probably a lot of explanations for that."

The most important is probably that nationwide economic changes left many rural dwellers disaffected, feeling detached from modern society; Republicans appealed to that, Smith said.

Legislative Power

When the 135th General Assembly convenes in January, the House Speaker and Senate President will have ironclad supermajorities — enough to pass emergency legislation without any Democratic support, and to override any vetoes from their own party's governor, Mike DeWine.

Republicans' lock on the legislature reduces the incentive for bipartisanship, and sets up possible conflict with DeWine, Devine said. He might back off any push for moderation, or could stand up to legislative hardliners.

"That's a risky game to play with your own party, of course," Devine said.

DeWine, age 75 with a 46-year career in public office, no longer needs to worry about his next election, Devine said.

"The problem is that he also has to have an eye on where the state goes after he leaves office," Devine said. "He is someone who is very invested in Ohio politics and Republican politics."

That concern is particularly for helping or hindering his 55-year-old lieutenant governor's prospects.

"I think it's fairly clear that Jon Husted wants to be the next governor," Devine said.

Republicans' major challenge probably won't come from Democrats but from keeping their own coalition together, Hannah said. A push from very conservative members for "red meat policy" might cost them moderates' votes, he said. Some states already saw that in action this election, Hannah said.

DeWine won 85 of the state's 88 counties; the only wins for his Democratic opponent, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, were in Athens, Franklin and Cuyahoga counties. Even in Montgomery County, DeWine's margin of victory was close to his statewide total.

While both Republican candidates won by substantial margins, DeWine won by nearly 26 percentage points while Republican candidate for U.S. Senate J.D. Vance won by nearly 7 percentage points — meaning that at least some voters split their ticket, voting for DeWine but against Vance. That's worth noting, Smith said.

"Why that difference exists, and what it will mean moving forward for Ohio, I think is an interesting question," Smith said. He believes the Ohio Republican Party is more diverse than people expect.

The gap between DeWine and Vance shows some Ohio voters are willing to split their tickets, Hannah said.

"And the congressional races do show us that candidate quality still matters — it's not just partisanship and the economy," he said.

Voters do distinguish between state and national candidates, Hannah said.

DeWine owed a lot of his strength to incumbency, name recognition and general satisfaction with his administration, while Whaley had a hard time getting attention and substantial funding — either from state or national Democrats, he said.

"With Republicans holding the statewide offices for the last 12 years, they've been able to run a lot of candidates with experience and name recognition," Hannah said. "It's also easier to build a bench when you have majorities in the statehouse and can put your people in prominent positions."

This was expected to be a strong Republican year, so some potential Democratic candidates sat this one out, leaving a lot of races uncontested, he said.

Partisan leanings

Republicans maintained their 4-3 advantage on the state supreme court, as Justice Sharon Kennedy won the chief justiceship while justices Pat DeWine and Patrick Fischer held off Democratic challengers. Gov. DeWine will appoint someone to fill the remaining four years of Kennedy's term.

Retiring Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is also a Republican, but in the last year has consistently sided with the court's Democrats in ruling that Republican-drawn state legislative and congressional district maps were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor the Republican Party.

More than a year ago the Ohio Redistricting Commission, dominated 5-2 by Republicans, began working on new state legislative and U.S. House district maps. All maps the commission or the General Assembly approved have been ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court as gerrymandered to unfairly favor Republicans — but federal judges ordered some of those maps to be used for the 2022 election cycle anyway due to time constraints.

Republican tactics on state legislative maps paid off. All 99 state House seats and 17 of the 33 Senate seats were up for election. The maps in use this year ostensibly created 54 Republican-leaning and 45 Democratic-leaning House seats, with 18 Republican and 15 Democratic Senate seats, close to the balance sought by the Ohio Supreme Court as reflecting Ohioans' historic statewide voting preferences. But of those, 19 House and seven Senate seats leaned Democratic by less than 4%, while no Republican districts were that close.

Republicans picked up one Senate seat, giving them a 26-7 advantage in that chamber; and gained four seats in the House, increasing their control there to 68-31.

The court has ordered the redistricting commission to draw new maps for the 2024 election cycle; but that's not expected to happen until 2023, and with O'Connor's departure the court may rule differently on future maps.

Smith said he's not sure the increased Republican margin will have a significant state policy impact, since the party already held a "very healthy majority." But redistricting could be an exception: if Republicans seek to increase their majority still further by drawing favorable districts, the chance increases that the state supreme court will keep insisting those maps be redone.

Although DeWine is likely to appoint a Republican-friendly jurist to Kennedy's open seat, judicial appointees can act unpredictably once they're on the bench, Smith said.

DeWine expressed "quite a bit of discomfort" at how redistricting played out, so he might be open to appointing someone like O'Connor who would push back on overtly Republican-favoring maps, Devine said.

But based on DeWine's policy history, opposition to abortion and a focus on crime will probably be the top priorities in finding a justice, he said.

"Redistricting, if it factors in, is going to be way down the list for him," Devine said.