© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Analysis: Years ago, Hamilton County turned blue. Could deep-red Warren County be next?

a rainbow stretches over a white barn with green grass and a white fence in the foreground
Warren County Fairgrounds
The Warren County Fairgrounds on July 15, 2023.

Warren County, for as long as anyone can remember, has been a reliably red Republican county.

Every countywide elected office is held by a Republican.

There have been times over the last several decades where the Democratic Party has been unable to even field candidates for county offices. When they did, the Republican — usually an incumbent — would win with upwards of 70% of the vote.

Three years ago, Donald Trump took 65% of the vote. Previous Republican candidates for president did much the same.

The Ohio Republican Party has always been able to count on good ol' Warren County to come through in the clutch, with a boatload of votes.

But, in politics, as in physics, nothing is static.

Everything changes, eventually.

Even Warren County politics.

ANALYSIS: Despite indictments, Trump's grip on Ohio Republicans remains strong

There was a time, only a generation ago, when the description of Warren County Republican domination would have applied to its neighbor to the south, Hamilton County.

Back in my Cincinnati Enquirer days, as far back as the late 1990s, I was writing a politics column saying that solidly Republican Hamilton County would eventually turn Democratic blue.

The party's base would move to the exurbs (including Warren County), retire to Florida or Arizona or somewhere else sunny and warm, or, sadly, pass on. What would be left is an urban core chock full of Democrats, many of whom themselves would take the Republicans' places in the Cincinnati suburbs.

I was called a crackpot, some kind of space alien who didn't understand the ways of Earth; I was ridiculed and told I was hallucinating.

And then it happened.

Hamilton County turned blue. And it's not going back anytime soon.

A core of dedicated, ambitious Democrats in Warren County is seeing an opportunity to make their party competitive and in a position to win countywide races.

ANALYSIS: Why would Republicans want to ban an election system that could help them?

a woman with short blonde hair smiles in a white v-neck shirt and black blazer against a gray background
Kelly Sakalas.

They are under the leadership of a new county chairwoman, Kelly Sakalas, a marketing professional who lives in Mason with her husband and two boys, ages 8 and 2.

Sakalas took over the party this month from her friend Bethe Goldenfield, who was chair of the county party for 13 years before retiring.

The new chairwoman represents exactly the kind of voter the Warren County Democratic Party is trying to attract — a suburban woman, a professional, and a mother whose family migrated to the burgeoning southern tier of Warren County.

"This is a pretty exciting time to be a Democrat in Warren County,'' Sakalas said. "We've seen thousands of people moved into places like Mason and Deerfield Township in recent years. New residents who have more of a tendency to vote Democratic."

The population boom has been incredible.

In 1990, the city of Mason had about 11,500 residents. In 2023, it is more than three times that — 35,601.

The same goes for adjacent Deerfield Township, where the population has jumped from 26,516 in 1990 to over 40,000 today.

Sakalas and other Democrats took heart from the Aug. 8 special election in Ohio, where a ballot issue to raise the threshold for passage of constitutional amendment to 60% failed miserably statewide.

RELATED: See how each Ohio county voted on Issue 1

The Ohio Republican party urged a "yes" vote; the Ohio Democratic Party was on the other side.

In Warren County, the vote on Issue 1 was much closer than anyone had imagined it would be in a reliably red county — 53% voted yes.

Warren County Democratic Party

Better yet for Democrats was the Issue 1 vote in Ohio House District 56, which includes Mason, Deerfield Township and Lebanon. The 56th District is represented by a freshman Republican, State Rep. Adam Mathews of Lebanon.

Mathews won the district with 60% of the vote last year over Democrat Joy Bennett, who is running for a seat on Mason City Council this year.

Issue 1 was voted down in the 56th Ohio House district, with 54% voting no.

Warren County Democratic Party

"When we shared those numbers at a party meeting, people were amazed," Sakalas said. "I had a couple of people who came up to me after the meeting saying they were interested in running next year."

'It's a mistake'

Julie Byrne, a lawyer who is chair of the Warren County Republican Party, warned against reading too much into the county's Issue 1 results.

"It’s a mistake to extrapolate anything from Issue 1," Byrne said. "It's a much different story when there is an 'R' versus a 'D' on the ballot. When that is the case, we win."

Byrne said she believes there were many people, including many Republicans, who were confused by Issue 1.

"The messaging from both sides was confusing," she said. "The two sides had the same message — that this was about protecting the constitution. No wonder some people were confused."

Sakalas, though, is by no means delusional. She knows perfectly well that catching up with the Warren County Republicans — and someday overtaking them — is a war of attrition, a series of small victories that, over a long period of time, turn into big ones.

"We are playing the long game in Warren County," Sakalas said. "But we see the signs. There is a change in attitude for a lot of people, especially those who have recently moved into the county.

"The persuadable voters are becoming a little more persuadable," Sakalas said.

The demographics of Warren County are swinging in the Democrats' favor, as more and more "persuadables" stream into the county, both in the Mason-Deerfield area and in the Springboro area in the north.

In recent years, they have been attracted by high-paying jobs in industries that put a premium on a highly educated and highly skilled work force.

They are companies like Procter & Gamble, Cintas, Mitsubishi Electric, Anthem, Macy's, MedPlus and many others.

ANALYSIS: What does Issue 1's defeat mean for Ohio's abortion rights amendment?

And much of what was once farmland in the area has been developed into very livable housing tracts, so people can live close by their workplaces. No long commute.

Many of these transplants are independent voters.

The Warren County Democratic Party is depending on them for the future.

Byrne said that the reason people are moving into Warren County is to "get away from Democratic-run cities," like Cincinnati and Dayton.

We think it might have more to do with good paying jobs, commensurate to their education and skills, and some very good school systems for their kids.

While it is true that most county-wide candidate races in Warren County end up 70-30 in favor of the Republicans, Sakalas and the Democratic Party plan to wage their war of attrition.

In a war of attrition, 70-30 becomes 65-35. 65-35 becomes 60-40. And that becomes 55-45. And on and on until the GOP lead is whittled down and every race becomes competitive.

Byrne said the Republicans will dominate Warren County politics "for the foreseeable future."

It may be more foreseeable than the GOP thinks.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.