Two years is a lifetime in politics. In 2004 George Bush secured the presidency with a hard fought win in Ohio, but just two years later a dismal election night for Republicans nationally proved disastrous in Ohio. In the governor’s race Democrat Ted Strickland crushed Ken Blackwell, the GOP secretary of state, with over 60% of the vote. In the Senate contest liberal Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown defeated Mike DeWine, the two term Republican incumbent, by almost 12% –contributing to the change in control of the Senate. The GOP also lost the seat held by Rep. Bob Ney, who resigned after pleading guilty to Abramoff corruption charges. Three other Republican congressional incumbents in Ohio barely eked out wins. In addition, Republicans lost all but one statewide office and eight seats in the state legislature, although Republicans maintained majorities in both chambers.
For those bemoaning the Democratic tsunami it is easy to forget that the Republican’s advantage in Ohio has been relatively recent and hardly overwhelming. Although George Bush carried the state in 2004, “Ohio has always been a competitive state” according to DeWine. He cites victories by both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and recalls that Ohio sent Democratic senators to Washington for years. Indeed, DeWine was the first Republican senator in 25 years. During this remarkable run Republicans maximized their success with savvy strategy. Professor Alexander Lamis of Case Western University explains that the Republicans effectively developed candidates and avoided intramural fights, such as moving Bob Taft to the Secretary of State race rather than having him compete against George Voinovich for governor in 1990. That helped Voinovich secure the governorship, which in turn led to a successful Senate run, and also prepared Taft for the governorship.
Republicans luck ran out in 2006. Ohio Republicans, in addition to laboring under the burden of growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and a U.S. Congress without fiscal or ethical discipline, had their own homegrown problems. Democrats up and down the ticket sought to tie their opponents to Gov. Bob Taft, who pled guilty to several charges of accepting illegal gifts, and disgraced Bob Ney.
The economy did not help matters. Traditionally a strong manufacturing and agriculture state, Ohio did not make a swift transition to the New Economy. Between 2001 and 2006 Ohio lost about 150,000 nonfarm jobs and 20% of its manufacturing jobs. With the unemployment rate in Ohio approximately a full percentage point above the national average, a state poll before the election found that over 80% of Ohio voters believed the economy was in poor or fair shape. With statistics like these, voters turned on the GOP incumbents who their opponents painted as failing to meet the state’s economic challenges.
Making matters worse, there was no state referendum or other issue to rally “values” voters. In 2004 President Bush’s 118,000 vote margin stemmed in large part from a large turnout by religious conservatives motivated to vote because of a state referendum on gay marriage. As the Washington Post explained a month before the 2006 election: “Two years ago, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was a driving force in the triumphant campaign for a state constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. That helped cause a surge in turnout of ‘values voters,’ who helped deliver this pivotal state to President Bush’s successful reelection effort.” By 2006 Democrats had caught on to the importance of these voters. Ted Strickland, a former Methodist minister, opened his campaign with a commercial on Christian radio pledging that he would follow “biblical principles” if elected. Both Strickland and Brown campaigned in rural areas and spoke about their religious faith in an effort to capture a share of religious voters. Their efforts paid off as Democrats in 2006 did far better with religious voters than they had in 2004. Brown got 44% of the vote of those attending religious services at least once a week — usually a key constituency for Republicans — while Strickland pulled in 49% of these voters.
The Iraq war also took its toll. Exit polling showed 56% of voters disapproved of the war. Brown captured 82% of these voters and Strickland 83%. With state and national corruption, an unpopular war, a tepid state economy and less support from religious conservatives, it is remarkable that more Republicans did not also lose their seats. As DeWine describes it, 2006 saw the “perfect storm” for what he and other Republicans hope is only a once in a lifetime political wipeout.
Still, it may be unwise to predict a permanent shift in GOP fortunes in Ohio. Political analyst and University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato says, “There is no ‘for good’ in politics. Almost everything is cyclical.” Professor Lamis observes that the GOP starts with a strong base of support. Even in the disastrous year of 2006, GOP identification dropped only 3% from 2004 to 37% of the voters, while Democrats rose from 35% to 40%. Moreover, he credits the GOP with a “good Republican farm team” which in the past has produced proven vote getters even in Democratic strongholds like George Voinovich, former Cleveland mayor. He says “I’d be surprised if this became a time of Democratic dominance.” Moreover, Republican voters may grow as population increases in suburban areas generally favorably disposed to Republicans.
Where does the GOP go from here? Clearly the GOP state legislative leaders believe a positive legislative agenda addressing voters’ concerns will help. The Republican controlled state senate has already passed transportation, tax relief and adoption tax credit bills, and other measures on eminent domain protection and redistricting and ethics reform have been introduced.
In Washington, Ohio Republicans seem to be watching their districts closely. Rep. Deborah Pryce, who escaped with less than a 1,062 vote margin, saw value in giving up her leadership post as chair of the Republican Conference in favor of focusing on constituent needs. She declared in a written statement shortly after the election: “I believe it is in the best interest of the party … that I keep my focus on my district for the next two years and ensure this seat remains safely in Republican hands.”
Another area for improvement would be in Republicans’ appeal to independent voters. In 2006, the independent vote remained at about a quarter of the electorate but broke 2 to 1 for Democrats in the governor and Senate races. DeWine, who is heading up Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in the state, says successful GOP candidates “will appeal and motivate the base but also go beyond the base” to independents who are key to the state. Candidates such as McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hope there is a winning formula for Republicans who combine conservative social values, a positive economic platform and an independent streak.
Moreover, Ohio Democrats in power now have the responsibility for governing and risk voters’ wrath if they do not produce results. They already have shown an aversion to reform. Gov. Strickland recently proposed abolishing the statewide school voucher program and halting expansion of the state’s charter school program. House Minority Leader John Boehner and other Republicans immediately criticized the move. They no doubt will be echoing the words of the Wall Street Journal that in a state in need of school improvement voters may be left wondering why Strickland wouldn’t “have better things to do than deny opportunity for poor kids to escape the worst school in the state.”
Ohio does then provide a lesson to Republicans across the country: majorities are never permanent and party loyalty will not trump voters’ perennial concerns about good government and economic prosperity. Moreover, unless progress is made, the deepening mood of dissatisfaction with handling of the Iraq war will loom over state races. If Ohio Republicans — at home and in Washington — do not address these concerns their time in the political wilderness will be prolonged.