Don’t Look Now, But Ohio Might Be a Swing State Again

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In early 2019, one of the Democrats’ white-shoe super PACs huddled with its deep-pocketed donors to talk strategy and dropped something of a bombshell. Priorities USA’s leaders had prepared a $100 million spending plan for must-win presidential states that included Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. They were also looking to spend an undetermined sum in states on the cusp like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. The path to 270 electoral votes and the White House would go through those states, the strategists argued.

Ohio did not make the cut, a major shift from four years earlier. In fact, Ohio was ranked between Texas and Iowa in terms of competitiveness in 2020. In other words: not terribly.

The thinking around Washington on Ohio as an out-of-reach luxury for Democrats hasn’t changed. The only Democratic candidate for statewide Ohio office to win since 2012 is Sen. Sherrod Brown. The state party seems to churn in lurches. Thomas Suddes, the state’s leading political columnist, rightly dubbed Ohio Democrats “endangered species” in his post-mortem of 2022. The state twice went for Trump by 8 points. Latent sexism played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s loss there, and it certainly didn’t help Democrats’ 2022 nominee for Governor, Nan Whaley, in her campaign that lost 85 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Trumpian politics of grievance, grudge, and victimhood made him a more appealing choice to more Ohioans than “Middle Class Joe” Biden, even if Biden did manage to become the first Democrat to get to the White House without Ohio since J.F.K. (No Republican in the two-party era has ever done so.)

So you see why Ohio hasn’t been atop many national strategists’ reasons for optimism. “Ohio was just not a good ROI,” a senior Democrat told me this week. “Any money we put there was to make the other guys spend, too.”

Well, he might want to at least put a pin in that verdict, given the outcome of a ballot measure Tuesday night that was a clear stand-in for the current fight over access to abortion. 

My TIME colleague Sanya Mansoor has a great break-down of the vote that was nominally about changing the process of amending the Ohio Constitution. The GOP effort to make it harder to enshrine access to abortion in Ohio fell apart, and it wasn’t even close. The measure failed  along the lines of 57-43. That means the citizen-led ballot initiative to add a right to abortion access to the state constitution will only need the support of a simple majority to pass in November. Given Tuesday’s results, that seems eminently reachable.

Ohio is just the latest in a streak of states whose voters have shown a strong interest in protecting or expanding abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gutting of a federal right to that medical procedure.

But it’s Ohio, no? The state that was an afterthought to the Democratic Party’s biggest donors in recent years. If out-of-state dollars could pour into the state to turn back efforts to thrash abortion rights, why couldn’t they do the same for candidates?

That’s the question a lot of Washington will be asking this week with major implications for the White House and control of the Senate. 

So far, the Biden campaign has gone on the air to the tune of about $1.6 million in eight states, but has not spent any money on ads in Ohio. In briefings with donors, top Biden advisers have cast Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania as their route to win. They’re also tiptoeing into North Carolina with its shifting demographics and some inside Biden’s orbit have a parochial interest in playing in Florida, home to Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Ohio, at least for now, remains on the White House’s wishlist, not a must-have.

That instinct is not entirely irrational. Ohio, objectively, has grown more partisan in recent years. Rural counties have deepened their hue of red and the urban ones have gone darker blue. But the shift leftward in Ohio’s cities is lagging others in the region. (A terrific London School of Economics political science blog explains that data here.) But the basic gist is this: Ohio’s three biggest cities—Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati—are politically closer to Des Moines and Indianapolis than reliably blue Philadelphia, and thus insufficient offsets in otherwise red states. For instance, strategists can count on 70% support for Democratic nominees in Philadelphia, while Cincinnati broke for Biden with 57% support. And, unlike other states that went blue, Ohio’s three biggest counties account for just 44% of the population; Philadelphia makes up for 57% of Pennsylvania’s population. Ohio skeptics argue there just aren’t enough voters in Ohio’s big Democratic cities to offset deficits in suburban and rural areas.

Yes, but this might not be the whole story. Brown, the state’s senior Senator, is on the ballot next year, and he’s one of national Democrats’ top priorities for defense-at-all costs. Democrats can afford to lose just one of the 23 incumbent seats on the map next year and stay in power. Brown already announced he is running again, and the Republican race to challenge him is likely to become a messy affair on par with the nasty 2022 primary for the seat being vacated by Sen. Rob Portman. For Democrats facing a tough map of defending seats in Montana, West Virginia, and Arizona, any breathing room in Ohio is a welcome development. 

With both Biden and Brown on the ticket in Ohio in 2024, Democrats might just have a shot at breaking the Trumpist hold over the Buckeye State. The abortion-minded vote this week only adds to the optimism—perhaps ill-placed, admittedly—that Ohio may be poised to roar back to swing-state status. After all, Brown has been preaching Ohio’s competitive nature to anyone who will listen, and his ear on Ohio’s political tuning fork is as good as they come. He’s hardly a heretic inside the admittedly contracting Democratic clubhouse, and was widely considered a strong contender for a 2020 presidential race if he wanted to try.

Then there’s the state’s history in presidential politics, encumbered with all of its limits. For years, it was assumed without question that Ohio was the archetypal swing state. The 2008 general election saw the nominees drop in some 50 times ahead of Election Day. In 2004, that number was 40. So baked-in was the reputation that a well-received 2006 documentary played up the unofficial credo of the political class: “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.” It’s a Midwestern adaptation of New York’s lyrical belief that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

That sentiment was hard to find last year, when I spent the last week of the 2022 campaign talking with voters and candidates from Cincinnati to Cleveland, Toledo to Chillocothe. It seemed like the state’s Democratic base was on an apathetic autopilot despite some novel attempts to rally behind Biden’s accomplishments. There were reasons to keep finite money out of the state.

But Tuesday’s results stand to, if not start a pipeline of campaign cash into Columbus, at least invite a conversation about whether writing off Ohio as a lost cause might have been premature. After all, history and math can only take a political idea so far. Sometimes, the voters themselves reveal an opportunity, one that exists beyond spreadsheets and pivot tables. Occasionally, the organic ideas that seem mad on legal pads but prove sage come election night.

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