Midterms show Ohio remains firmly in play for 2020

The Election Night 2018 hot takes about a blue wave being a mirage have aged pretty poorly over the past few months.

The “Democrats in disarray” narrative being pushed in the weeks before the speakership vote seems ridiculous in retrospect. Just ask Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRomney: Trump asking Ukraine to investigate political rival 'would be troubling in the extreme' Pelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' Democrats must embrace Israel and denounce anti-Semitism in the party MORE (D-Calif.).

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And pundits’ snap declarations that Ohio is now “reliably red” are equally off-base. A deeper look at the 2018 election results shows that the Buckeye State is undergoing important, if subtle electoral shifts that underscore how much it remains in play for 2020.

Here’s what happened in 2018:

  • Democratic candidates won 49 percent of the total votes cast statewide in legislative races -- picking up a net of five seats in the state House -- and 48 percent in congressional races.

For those who are keeping track -- that’s three statewide wins for Democratic candidates and Republicans garnering just over 50 percent in the closest statewide results in 12 years.

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Do those sound like results that should convince national Democrats to look elsewhere for 18 electoral votes? (Maybe if you’re a Republican operative.)

The truth is, declaring Ohio “red” or “blue” is appealing on the surface, but misses the deeper reality that, as in the nation, a more complex realignment is happening in Ohio politics.

Ohio is indeed changing culturally, economically and demographically -- but not uniformly.

When you compare the results from 2012, when Ohio last went blue, with those from the 2018 midterm, you find that Sen. Brown and other Ohio Democratic candidates gained vote share in far more counties than where we lost ground. Even more importantly, those gains took place in the larger and more quickly growing parts of the state, including former GOP strongholds in the suburbs. The loss in vote share versus 2012 came in smaller counties and places that are losing residents.

In essence, Ohio saw the same pattern that we saw nationally, with House Democrats picking up seat after seat in the suburbs, turning formerly Republican bastions like Orange County, Calif., deep blue.

To be clear, Ohio Democrats are committed to competing everywhere, and our goal is to do better everywhere, as well as to assist all parts of the state that are struggling under Republican policies. But if the realignment we are seeing continues in this direction -- with Democrats making substantial gains in the areas of the state that are growing -- then national and in-state Democratic candidates can be competitive and even victorious.

It turns out that Columbus Republicans are giving us an assist in that effort. Just as we make large gains in the suburbs, the Ohio GOP is doubling down on an extreme and archaic social agenda that turns away those moderate voters. Former Gov. John Kasich had the wisdom to curb Republican lawmakers’ worst excesses, but DeWine has already made clear that he will give them free rein to pass laws that criminalize abortion and empower the gun lobby.

Finally, if Ohio Republicans have succeeded in anything over the past eight years, it has been in making it harder to vote. From curtailing early voting to rejecting valid absentee and provisional ballots for minor issues, the GOP has lodged one attack after another against Ohioans’ voting rights. The coup de grace has been the nation’s most aggressive voter purging policy, which has resulted in more than 2 million registered voters being removed from the rolls since 2010 (as a comparison, DeWine won the governor’s race by 160,000 votes).

So for Republicans to proclaim Ohio as a “red” state now -- well, they’ve worked overtime to gerrymander the state and make it harder for traditionally Democratic voters to make their voices heard at the ballot box. I guess that’s a victory of sorts ... a victory over democracy.

Ohio Democrats aren’t giving up on Ohio or democracy. This past election’s results revealed we’re still a toss-up state, trending blue in key ways versus all other elections this decade.

And we have aggressive plans in 2019 to push the dial even further: starting with restoring Ohio’s purged voters to the rolls and empowering our most loyal Democratic voters for 2020, continuing to gain moderates turned off by the extremist bent of DeWine and Columbus Republicans and winning over hard-working Ohioans in all 88 counties disillusioned and hurt by the president’s broken promises.

In November, Democrats won legislative races in districts we wouldn’t have dreamed of winning even four or six years ago. We won Supreme Court races we have been losing for decades. And Sherrod Brown showed that with hard work and the right message, Democrats can win Ohio.

In 2020, we will do it again.

David Pepper is Ohio Democratic Party chairman.