By Eric Bradner, CNN
Desperate to prove that Ohio is not a lost cause, Democratic candidates for governor and an open Senate seat are trying to avoid culture wars and tap into a vein of economic populism that has eluded them in the increasingly red state in recent decades.
It wasn’t long since the Democrats last won in Ohio. Former President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012. And in 2018 Senator Sherrod Brown won his third term. However, those high-profile victories obscured a much darker reality in the state for the Democratic Party.
No other Democrat has won a statewide office here since 2006. In 2020, Joe Biden became the first person to win the presidency without winning Ohio since 1960 – ending the state’s flagship status. Ohio, even though it had been clear for several election cycles that Ohio was no longer the swing state that would push a presidential candidate over 270 electoral votes. Former President Donald Trump’s 8-point victories in Ohio in 2016 and 2020 underscored just how far Democrats had slipped, especially in white rural areas of the state.
This year, the open-seat Senate race created by the retirement of Republican Sen. Rob Portman, as well as the gubernatorial race, will provide the final test of whether Democrats can still win in Buckeye State — or whether Ohio’s battleground status will continue to fade.
Rep. Tim Ryan is the leading contender to face whoever emerges from a packed and acrimonious seven-person Republican primary. Meanwhile, two former mayors are vying for the Democratic nomination for a gubernatorial race that would likely pit the primary winner against incumbent Governor Mike DeWine.
These candidates have largely honed a similar approach: focusing almost exclusively on jobs and salaries. Defend the rights of workers and unions, and hammer China and free trade agreements. Stay out of the culture wars that drive the Republican base.
It’s an economic message that carries unmistakable echoes from both Trump and Brown.
“The Sherrod Brown role model is the role model to win in Ohio,” said Aaron Pickrell, a veteran Ohio Democratic strategist and a leader in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 winning efforts in the state. “I will not compare Sherrod Brown to Donald Trump. But tapping into economic anxiety to explain how you’re going to help Ohioans deal with their economic anxiety is the way to win.
But, strategists say, the appeal of Trump and Brown in Ohio isn’t just their message.
In their own way, both strike voters as authentic figures. Brown has survived while other Midwestern Democrats have lost in part because, over decades in public life, he has cultivated a working-class-focused brand that is aided by his raspy voice and rumpled appearance. In 2018, he significantly outperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket statewide: Brown won re-election by 7 percentage points, while DeWine won the governorship and Republicans on the decline won offices. statewide by about 4 percentage points.
“There are a lot of reasons why Sherrod wins, and one of them is similar to why Donald Trump won Ohio: in states like this where it’s a competitive state that started tilting one direction, voters value authenticity more than anything,” said Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who managed Brown’s 2018 campaign and advises Ryan’s gubernatorial bid.
“They know every time they hear about Sherrod Brown that they’re getting a genuine person,” Barasky said. “They know why he does what he does, who he fights for, that he is there for the right reasons. For better or worse, they believe it about Trump, too.
“Start reducing the workers to the agreement”
This brand is difficult to build in a single election cycle. But Ryan, the 10-term congressman from Youngstown who in 2016 challenged Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker and launched a short-lived Democratic presidential campaign in 2020, is trying.
Ryan, 48, was first elected to Congress in 2002. He frequently visits union halls in Ohio and has made stories about his family’s working-class roots a staple of the campaign trail. He casts himself as a Democrat in Brown’s mold and tells crowds that while he disagreed with Trump on a number of issues, he supported renegotiation of the Northeast Free Trade Agreement. American.
He centered his campaign on an argument for policies that would force companies to “start cutting workers in the deal”.
“Ohio needs to lead the way in bringing our supply chain back, taking on China, building the things that will build our future,” he said in his opening remarks during a Monday debate at Central State University, a historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio, east of Dayton.
Ryan travels to heavily Republican rural areas of the state frequently ignored by Democrats, trying to stem the party’s hemorrhage there after years of Republicans racking up huge margins of victory in those counties.
Ohio’s urban areas favor Democrats, but cities like Cincinnati and Columbus don’t offer the huge margins that party candidates receive in neighboring urban counties in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Democrats have routinely won statewide contests in recent years. Reducing GOP dominance in rural Ohio counties is therefore essential, according to Democratic strategists, to restore the state to competitive status.
“Tim learns what people care about, people talk about his presence, he talks to the press while he’s there. In every corner of Ohio, people will know that Tim is watching over them,” Pickrell said. .
Still, Ryan has one main challenge to overcome in May before he can focus on the winner of a seven-way GOP primary. Morgan Harper, a lawyer and former senior adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, challenged Ryan from the left.
During Monday’s debate, Harper criticized Ryan for previously receiving an “A” grade from the National Rifle Association and for taking campaign money from defense contractors. She said Congress should cancel student loan debt and expand the Supreme Court — positions Ryan did not take.
Still, Ryan is the clear frontrunner, with a huge financial advantage: He ended 2021 with $5 million in his campaign bank account, more than 10 times what Harper had on hand.
This allowed Ryan to launch a $3.3 million ad buy this week – with his first 30-second spot focusing solely on China.
“It’s us against China, and instead of taking them on, Washington is wasting our time in dumb fights,” Ryan says in the ad.
Democrats seek to link DeWine to social issues
DeWine, the Republican governor who has served for nearly 40 years — first as a local prosecutor, then state legislator, then as a member of the United States House, then lieutenant governor of the Ohio, then to the U.S. Senate, and finally back to Ohio as attorney general before being elected governor in 2018 — faces competition from the GOP in his bid for a second term.
DeWine emerged early in the coronavirus pandemic among key governors advocating public health measures to slow the pandemic. But in his first primary season TV ad this week, he pushed the other way, highlighting his efforts to reopen Cleveland schools in early 2021. It’s a response to the pressure he’s facing from Right: Former U.S. Representative Jim Renacci and farmer and business owner Joe Blystone are campaigning to criticize DeWine’s handling of the pandemic, saying steps he has taken to close schools and businesses early have gone too far.
In a gubernatorial debate at Central State University the day after the Senate nominee debate, the two Democratic candidates vying to take on DeWine, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, focused on jobs rather than DeWine’s handling of the pandemic.
But they also offered insight into a strategy that could help Democrats win over suburban areas of the state, portraying DeWine and Republicans as too extreme on social issues — in particular hammering DeWine’s decision to enact a measure passed by the Republican-led legislature that allows concealed carry of weapons without a license.
Whaley underscored DeWine’s promise to “do something” after a 2019 mass shooting left nine people dead in Dayton. “Never in my worst nightmare did I think what he was going to do was make it worse,” she said.
Reprimanding Republicans in state houses for overreaching social issues is part of Democrats’ strategy on the medium-term map, with party operatives looking for ways to focus GOP attention on issues driving a base always devoted to Trump versus Republicans in the general election.
“Among independent voters and suburban voters, people want the economy to be good and they don’t want to live in this really conservative state that’s focused on social issues that don’t affect their day-to-day lives that much.” , said Pickrell. .
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia company. All rights reserved.