Republicans are dead-set on winning back the Buckeye State.
Thursday’s raucous GOP debate in Cleveland is the beginning of an aggressive campaign by Republicans to win Ohio’s 18 electoral votes that includes returning to the city’s Quicken Loans Arena for the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Behind the scenes, national Republicans are getting an early start on organizing grassroots volunteers and reaching out to voters.
Election Day is more than a year away, but the Republican National Committee (RNC) has already sent 20 staffers to Ohio — the first deployment of what eventually will be a statewide army of between 150 and 175 field organizers.
The RNC is also investing more in technology and data, including so-called “walk” apps, to help identify and target undecided voters.
And there are new efforts to reach voters who previously have been ignored by the party, particularly those in urban neighborhoods. Late last month, the RNC launched #CommittedToCommunity, a new radio and digital ad campaign targeting African-American voters in the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus.
“We're still 16 months out from the general election, so this is a big, early commitment from us,” said RNC spokesman Raffi Williams, who was in Cleveland for the debate. In comparison to past election cycles, he added that “it’s an earlier start; it’s a heavier investment.”
It’s hardly surprising the GOP is focusing so much attention and so many resources on Ohio. No candidate since 1960 has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and the key swing state has correctly picked the winner in every election but two since 1904.
“It’s the most important state. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio,” Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said in a phone interview from Cleveland.
Democrat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE trounced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Ohio in 2008, taking 51.5 percent of the vote to Sen. John McCain’s 46.9 percent. Four years later, Obama shocked Republicans again, besting GOP nominee Mitt Romney 50.7 percent to 47.7 percent.
Republicans are drawing lessons from those stinging defeats, acknowledging that Democrats were organized earlier and better in Ohio. After the last shellacking, Borges said he called a meeting with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and told him: “We absolutely will not relive the experience of 2012.”
“I thought that was a disjointed effort. I wasn’t part of it,” Borges said of the Ohio GOP campaign in 2012. “With a different approach, with an integrated effort and all-in kind of attitude, I’m confident we can get this done and we will get this done.”
“We saw Obama get organized a year and a half out, and there is zero evidence Hillary is doing that right now,” he added. “The bigger the head start we can get, the more likely things will go for us.”
After winning Ohio twice in a row, Democrats are by no means ready to concede the state. At the end of the month, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE will head to Cleveland to help fire up grassroots supporters, then hobnob with big-dollar donors at a “Conversation with Hillary” fundraiser.
A day after the GOP debate, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz turned up in Cleveland and delivered a blistering attack on Republican policies and the GOP field.
“While I can see the appeal that Cleveland would hold for the Republican National Committee,” she said, “I have to be honest in admitting that I fail to see what Republicans are offering the people of Cleveland.”
In another lengthy riff, Wasserman Schultz took direct aim at the RNC’s Committed to Community campaign.
“If you want to prove that you’re committed to community … it takes more than avoiding racist rhetoric or taking down a flag," said the chairwoman, flanked by Ohio Democratic officials. “You’re not committed to community if you oppose paid-leave policies that help parents take care of their family. You’re not committed to community if you won’t support equal pay legislation to address a wage gap that is even greater for African-American and Latina women.
“You’re not committed to community if you’re against an increase in the minimum wage that would benefit up to 28 million Americans.”
Republicans, however, see the stars aligning for a 2016 comeback.
The GOP now holds big majorities in both the House and Senate in the Ohio state legislature, and it swept all five statewide offices in 2014. Twelve out of 16 U.S. House seats are controlled by Republicans as well.
Those GOP victories in local and statewide office have helped create a built-in infrastructure, a network of politically active people the party can call on to volunteer or fundraise.
Ohio Republicans also believe that having their popular home-state governor, John Kasich, running for the GOP presidential nomination is also driving interest in the 2016 race.
Kasich received high marks for his debate performance, which was aided by his home-field advantage. Last year, he crushed his Democratic rival by more than 30 points, winning 86 of 88 Ohio counties, including heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, whose 1.2 million residents make it the most populous in the state.
Ohio has gained hundreds of thousands of jobs since Kasich took office in January 2011, though Democrats point out the state consistently lags the national average in job growth.
With Kasich in the 2016 race, “Ohio has an economic comeback story to tell,” said GOP strategist John Ashbrook, a Cincinnati native and former aide to then-Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“We went from $8 billion in the hole to $2 billion in the black,” Kasich said during Thursday’s debate. “We’ve cut $5 billion in taxes and we’ve grown 350,000 jobs.”
Borges, the Ohio GOP chairman, noted that Romney lost Cuyahoga County to Obama by more than a quarter-million votes. Two years later, Kasich easily won the same county, which includes Cleveland.
“We can do better. We can actually compete here,” Borges said. “It’s up to us to capture that enthusiasm and turn that into electoral success.
“If I was a Democrat, I would be really, really worried.”