Democrat Can't Sell Self to Rural Voters, Sinks Ticket
White man in a dark suit, white shirt, red tie with shaggy blonde hair with a pensive worried look

It was not Donald Trump who did in Ohio Democrats on November 6th.

Ohio has not turned Republican.

It was Richard Cordray's fault.

The Ohio Democratic Party's opportunity to take power in 2018 depended on gubernatorial nominee Cordray convincing the voters, especially rural ones, that change was in order because of Republican Party corruption in state government.

This seemed eminently doable based on the ECOT scandal with $180 million lost and the wrongdoing in state government headlined by the resignation of the House Speaker.

Unfortunately, Cordray, his running mate Betty Sutton, and their four ticket mates Steve Dettelbach, Kathleen Clyde, Zack Space and Rob Richardson failed individually and collectively to make the case that their opponents in particular, and the GOP in general, had profoundly failed Ohioans and deserved to be defeated. Cordray, Dettelbach, Clyde and Space all lost by about 4 percent, Richardson by 7 percent.

Twelve years ago, Ted Strickland and company hung the Coingate scandal around the necks of the GOP and took four of five state offices.

Cordray and his ticket mates had the money to make the case through TV and web advertising and color postcards, but failed.

Meanwhile, Cordray's shortcomings as a leader became obvious to voters. He lacked the charisma of past Democratic governors Jack Gilligan and Dick Celeste and the folksy rural appeal of Strickland. He was brilliant but not particularly personable. He has been described as awkward. Cordray was unable to make the case that he was a better choice to lead Ohio in the future. He was not well served by his out-of-town handlers who failed to understand the dynamics of Ohio politics.

For months, because of all the GOP troubles, Mike DeWine was stymied about how to attack Cordray. Finally in August he began with surgical precision to undercut Cordray's support among women, especially less educated women, but running TV ads accusing Cordray of not testing rape kits while attorney general. These ran non-stop and Cordray never effectively answered the ads.

Another way DeWine wounded Cordray among rural Ohioans, and ran up the score there, was by cranking out TV ads the last month that dovetailed on the Rob Portman attack ads against Strickland in 2016 claiming that Strickland had run Ohio into the ditch, therefore Democrats could not be trusted to be in power. DeWine's ads stated that Cordray was attorney general under Strickland, so it was the Strickland-Cordray administration that failed Ohioans in 2010.

This diverted voters' attention away from DeWine's role in the ECOT scandal and the GOP Statehouse corruption. It made Cordray the bad guy, not DeWine, and convinced voters that the GOP candidates did not need to be replaced by Democrats. Cordray missed an opportunity to reply in kind. He could have pointed to the Piketon massacre and said, "Eight Ohioans were massacred in Piketon two years ago and attorney general DeWine has still not caught the murderers." And Cordray missed a chance to dramatize his work on behalf of financial consumers by not running ads featuring Ohioans who got money back from Cordray's efforts.

Some analysts mistakenly are crediting President Trump with the GOP sweep of the five state administrative offices in Ohio. The theory goes that Trump came into northeast Ohio the day before the election, boosted turnout and sent his supporters to the polls to vote for DeWine and company. A couple weeks earlier he did the same in the Cincinnati region. The evidence of Trump's potency is a survey of voters exiting the polls. Trump was seen in a favorable light by 52 percent while 47 percent disapproved of his performance as president. Thirty-eight percent of voters said they were Republicans and 33 percent Democrats.

The problem with the exit poll was that it omitted the 1.3 million voters (out of a total of 4.3 million) who cast absentee ballots or voted early. The early/absentee voters were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. That means that exit polling skewed Republican and skewed in favor of Trump.

If Trump were all powerful in Ohio, his influence would have carried Jim Renacci into the U.S. Senate instead of finishing 6 percent behind Sherrod Brown. And if Trump were all powerful in Ohio, the vote for candidates for the state legislature would have skewed Republican, instead of being split equally between Democrats and Republicans, and the vote for candidates for Congress would have been decidedly Republican instead of just barely.

Trump will have his hands full carrying Ohio in 2020 and probably cannot win re-election without Ohio's electoral votes. Trump's favorability, based on several public opinion polls, is at best break-even among Ohioans and Trump is more likely 2-4 percent behind, a big drop from his 8 percent victory margin in 2016.

There was one major proposal on the November 6 ballot that might have affected the gubernatorial race. That was Issue 1, a measure that would have reduced drug infraction penalties. It was opposed by many police and judges. DeWine said he would vote no, while Cordray said he would vote yes. The measure was defeated by a 3-to-2 margin and might have hurt Cordray, especially in rural counties, by telegraphing that he was not tough enough on drug crimes. Ohioans are not big on change. Cordray advocated change. DeWine the status quo.

DeWine's win demonstrated the dwindling influence of the state's major newspapers and their companion web sites. Five major newspapers – the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Toledo Blade and the Youngstown Vindicator – endorsed Cordray. This was highlighted in TV ads late in the campaign. All five newspapers appeared to promote Cordray in their news coverage. The PD's political columnist Brent Larkin ripped into DeWine late in the campaign.

All five metro areas typically go for Democrats, so Cordray carrying them is no surprise, but the papers and their websites are well read outside their hometowns in surrounding counties, and can be accessed via the web all over the state. Rural counties went strongly for DeWine, suggesting the newspapers and their web sites are not influential in the hinterlands. The press watchdog is not on duty much anymore. There is a reason that most campaign money is spent on TV and digital ads, social network ads and oversized color postcards through the mail. It works. News media coverage and commentary matter little in statewide elections these days.

Chair David Pepper deserves credit for rebuilding the Ohio Democratic Party from the wipe-out of 2014. His 88 county strategy that included recruiting candidates for all legislative and county offices, even in heavily Republican areas, was the right way to get the party back on its feet. This surely helped Brown win, helped Democrats capture two Supreme Court justice positions and helped Democrats gain five seats in the Ohio House

If Democrats capture the two court seats up in 2020, the party would gain a 4-3 majority and take control of one of the three branches of government in Ohio for the first time in a decade.

Brown outperformed Cordray by 10 percent. Brown's blue collar appeal is well-documented. He lives it by driving cars made in Toledo and Lordstown  (outside Youngstown) and buys his suits manufactured in Cleveland. After 40 years in public life, he remains affable and accessible, a working class hero, so to speak. Yet Brown could not, or would not, go all out to pull his ticket mates across the finish line. He could have run ads with his arm around Cordray, saying Rich is my brother and you can trust him. Brown is better at getting himself elected than helping other Democrats. He lacks coattails. Brown's campaign for the presidential nomination is a non-starter.

Other Midwest Democrats who reached the winner's circle November 6 stuck to offering practical solutions to local and state issues and avoided philosophical debates and getting into tangles with Trump. A glowing example was Gretchen Whitmer, the 46-year-old Michigan legislator, who won the governorship by a landslide. Her battle cry was "Fix the Damn Roads" in a state where potholes are widespread. Watching her be interviewed on TV, one could see the enthusiasm and charisma she possesses and how it translated into votes in a state that went for Trump in 2016. Whitmer and three female ticket mates swept the four state administrative offices and Democrats gained both state legislative and Congressional seats. In retrospect, Betty Sutton, who shares Whitmer's dynamism, might have been stronger candidate than Cordray.

John Kerry lost Ohio in his 2004 race for the presidency against George W. Bush, largely because he got clobbered in rural Ohio, much like Cordray did. Kerry, whose big hair and New England accent did not resonate with many Ohio voters, recently said that a presidential candidate running in Ohio should ask, "Why should people who hunt, fish and go to church trust you?" One does not have to be a political scientist to realize that DeWine fit the hunt-fish-church mold way better that Cordray did.

In August, I stopped in the southeastern Ohio city of Cambridge for breakfast at Bob Evans. I looked around and asked myself who the diners voted for between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was clear this was a hunt-fish-church crowd that favored Trump and likely favored DeWine.

Unless Democrats figure out how to win over rural Ohio voters, we will continue to struggle. Chairman Pepper picked the right slogan – "people first" – to plaster on the big blue bus, but not enough of the rural voters we needed were convinced. The Ohio Democratic Party needs to be rebranded. A first move should be to move the headquarters from Columbus to Cambridge, right next to the Bob Evans.

(John K. Hartman's Columbus Media Insider column will return next month.)
(Copyright 2018, John K. Hartman, All Rights Reserved.)