COLUMBUS — Democrats appear poised to lose every statewide election in battleground Ohio this fall — most of them badly. The prospect is fueling Republican arguments headed into the next presidential election that voter support in a key bellwether state telegraphs national approval for GOP policies.
Republicans are counting on solid wins in the run up to their 2016 presidential nominating convention in Cleveland, the bluest city in a politically purple state. Republican incumbents running for re-election for attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and auditor all appear headed for victory, as does GOP Gov. John Kasich over Democrat Ed FitzGerald.
“I want to see them re-elected by a substantial margin, because it would send a strong message across America about the way we want to see our leaders govern,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man with a substantial stake in Ohio’s political landscape as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a potential presidential candidate.
But two years is an eternity in politics. And in the recent past, President Barack Obama won the state twice. So did Democrat Bill Clinton. And Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, leads early presidential polls in the state. Democrats say any losses this year are merely an aberration.
“The Democratic Party is in an incredible position, because we are in sync with the American people,” former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said in an interview with The Associated Press, noting that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage and abortion rights. “If the Republican Party doesn’t get in sync on some of these issues, they will never, ever win another national election.”
No Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio. The last Democrat to win without the state was John F. Kennedy in 1960. Presidential races in Ohio usually are very close, adding to the campaign intensity.
So even in nonpresidential voting years, developments like Fitzgerald’s difficulties carry particular sting. The Cuyahoga County executive’s campaign first weathered the forced replacement of his running mate, only to face reports that police in 2012 found FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, in a parking lot at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who was not his wife and subsequent revelations that FitzGerald lacked a valid drivers’ license for about a decade.
University of Dayton assistant communications professor Joe Valenzano likens the implosion of FitzGerald’s campaign to “watching a bad car accident in slow motion.” Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf says it’s been “the worst campaign in the last 20 years,” and even Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern told the New York Times he wouldn’t allow the company that vetted FitzGerald “to clean out my bird cage.”
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, says choosing FitzGerald was “hugely wrong” — but what it says about Democrats’ future prospects is uncertain. Still, he said, Democrats “missed their chance” this year.
“Two or three years ago, they thought John Kasich would be easy to beat. His approval numbers were in the mid-30s at one point,” Brown said. “So they tried to get a candidate they thought could win. They turned out to be wrong about that, but that doesn’t mean the party’s gone forever.”
Terry Casey, a Republican political consultant in Ohio, agrees. He said it’s folly to try to translate what Ohio voters do in a statewide race to what will happen in a presidential race two years later.
“It’s literally apples and giraffes,” Casey said. “It’s two totally different things, because a presidential year is different.”
Casey said he’s seen one or the other party written off in Ohio in the past, only to carry off a landslide in the next election cycle. Schrimpf said that’s part of being “the mother of all swing states.”
“I remember after the November 2008 election, when the obituaries were written, the caskets were ordered and the burial plots were dug for the Republican Party, and they came back and won every statewide office in 2010,” Casey said. “Anybody that declares one side dead, there’s suddenly the Lazarus-rises-again very quickly.”
Valenzano said that doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try to capitalize on their expected Ohio victories in 2014 to make a national impact.
“The Republicans would be stupid to run around touting a Kasich landslide as, ‘It’s because the Democrats ran a horrible candidate in Ed FitzGerald,'” he said. “Of course, they’re going to say it’s because of the record of success of their Republican governor, and that’s exactly what they should do.”
JULIE CARR SMYTH, Associated Press