Where'd you go, Ohio? How a swing state went red

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BUCYRUS, Ohio — The old adage in politics used to be, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” And for the most part, since the start of the 20th century, the Buckeye State had earned that adage, only twice failing to support the national presidential winner — once in 1944 and again in 1960.

That all changed last November when Joe Biden became the first person since 1960 to win the presidency without carrying Ohio. Many in the Washington, D.C.-based political class decided that the people of Ohio had changed.

(Shannon Venditti / for the Washington Examiner)

Well, they haven’t. This misapprehension comes from many Washington journalists having more of a cultural connection with the Democratic candidates they cover than with the voters. The key to understanding Ohio in 2021, and its election in 2022, is to understand how the political parties have changed.

In 2006, Democrats swept Republicans out of power here in a big way amid a major corruption scandal. At the top of the ticket was then-Rep. Ted Strickland, who hailed from a conservative congressional district in southeast Ohio. An ordained United Methodist Minister who opposed gun control, he was appealing to conservative Democrats and evangelical voters.

Another Democrat, Rep. Sherrod Brown, defeated then-Sen. Mike DeWine, the Republican incumbent. Brown ran as a populist that had the workingman and woman’s back.

So Democrats won their last sweeping state-level victory in Ohio with a deliberate working-class and culturally conservative appeal. Strickland lost his reelection in 2010 to John Kasich. He then fell flat in his 2016 bid for Senate. By that time, he had spent too much time in Washington, running the left-wing Center for American Progress. Gone was the pro-gun rights conservative Democrat; gone was his connection with the voters.

The voters had not changed. The Democratic Party most certainly had. The Republican Party changed, too, as it inherited so many of those disaffected conservative Democrats, many of whom had voted for former President Barack Obama twice.

Ohio hosted the 2016 Republican convention, but few of the journalists covering the state from the outside paid attention to voters' sentiments toward the political parties. Their stories often relied heavily on candidates' personalities and the national thrust of cultural progressivism. They missed that voters had more interest in job opportunities, safe communities, and the growing opioid crisis.

Paul Sracic, a Youngstown State University political science professor, says that because the Democrats were shedding their voters in favor of an ascendant coalition of young people, minorities, cultural elites, and women, they missed how much that subtraction was affecting the Republican electorate. “And the change has been stunning,” he said.

The biggest change, he explains, has been along the eastern spine of the state, “From Ashtabula County along Lake Erie down through Trumbull, Stark, and Mahoning Counties, all the way down Washington County — these areas were historically mostly Democratic strongholds, but all of them voted for Trump in 2020.”

Sracic adds that it would be a big mistake to think that Ohio's sudden reddening was just about former President Donald Trump. “These voters clearly liked the former president, but they are not a cult," he says. "They were just waiting for someone like him to come along, and when he did, they were overjoyed. They’ll still turn out in droves to hear Trump because he still says the things they want to hear and in the way they want to hear them."

Not only was Trump's margin in Ohio surprising — he won in 2016 and again in 2020 by nearly half a million votes — but DeWine also managed to resurrect his political career with a come-from-behind upset victory for governor in 2018. The Democrats' blue wave of that year missed the Buckeye State altogether.

More than 20 years ago, Walter Russell Mead identified a certain type of American as “Jacksonian,” after the former Democratic president of the 19th Century, identifying their political attitudes with a region that overlaps with much of Appalachia. Jacksonianism originated with the Scotch-Irish who had come to the country in its early days and settled there. Many of the later Irish and Italian immigrants, who came to work in factories around the turn of the last century, were eventually assimilated into this culture and adopted Jacksonian values, including a sense of self-reliance, a distrust of authority, patriotism, loyalty to community, and admiration for the police and military.

“Jacksonians were attracted to law and order Republicans such as Nixon, or the patriotic anti-communist, Ronald Reagan,” Sracic said. "But they usually considered themselves Democrats since they tended to be working class and associated the Republican Party with the wealthy. Trump converted the Republican Party into the Jacksonian Party; this change is likely permanent, and future Republican candidates will adopt this message.”

You are already seeing this in Ohio, as Senate candidates line up to replace the decidedly non-Jacksonian Rob Portman. The attitudes of voters in this Crawford County town, known for its three-day Bratwurst Festival, evinces a deep distrust toward many of the national themes in which Democratic politicians have invested.

“Defunding the police, questioning American history, and advocating open borders are diametrically opposed to Jacksonian understandings of the world,” Sracic said. Democrats have essentially transformed themselves into the anti-Jacksonian Party, even going as far as to abolish their traditional Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners in order to distance themselves from the former presidents.

Republican primary voters will ask themselves who can be depended upon to stick with the Jacksonian platform. Sracic explains that all of the current candidates have tried to a certain degree to attach themselves to Trump, “but what they really need to do is attach themselves to Trump’s messages.”

This is where Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who announced his candidacy in July, might have a real advantage. “If I’m right, Trump’s voters' original roots are with the Scotch-Irish," Sracic said. "Who better to carry the message forward but someone born and raised within the cradle of Scotch-Irish culture and something he talks about in his book?"

The Republican field for Senate also includes businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons, as well as former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken and former State Treasurer Josh Mandel.

Democratic candidates include Demar Sheffey, Richard Taylor, and Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents Ohio’s 13th Congressional District. Ryan is a formerly conservative Democrat who moved leftward during his run for both House speaker against Nancy Pelosi in 2016 and as a candidate for president in 2020.

Last November, Ryan notably lost his home county of Trumbull, and Trump came within 5 points of carrying the district, which had been drawn by Republicans after the 2010 Census to elect a Democrat. The shift in Ryan's district reflects the state's overall transformation into a more Republican place, where the winner of next year's GOP primary will start off as the heavy favorite to replace Portman.

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Tags: Ohio, 2022 Elections, 2024 Elections, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, GOP, Republican Party

Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Where'd you go, Ohio? How a swing state went red

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