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Commentary: Who's At Risk When Ohio Draws A New Congressional Map?

Youngstown-area U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan takes a selfie with a delegate at the 2016 Democratic Party Convention.
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
Youngstown-area U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan takes a selfie with a delegate at the 2016 Democratic Party Convention.

We're still almost two years away from the time when the numbers geeks hired by the political parties in Ohio put on their green eyeshades and load their U.S. Census data into their computers and begin turning out a brand-new congressional district map.

We can't pretend to tell for certain what that map will look like, but it should be less of a mish-mosh of squiggly lines that split Democratic counties in two and caused great joy in GOP headquarters in Columbus. And why not? The Republicans and Democrats have split Ohio's vote in congressional races nearly 50-50 for the past decade, but, because of gerrymandering, the Republicans control 75% of Ohio's 16 House seats.

In 2021, redistricting in Ohio will operate under a new system that, in theory at least, should create a less partisan system.

Here are some more-or-less educated guesses as to what that new system might produce:

  • In 2022, The Steve Chabot Protection Act of 2011, passed by the Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly in the last round of redistricting, will be a thing of the past. Well, it's not really called that, but practically speaking the Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly saved Chabot's bacon when they added fire-engine red Warren County to his western Hamilton County district. It is a lead pipe cinch that Warren County be gone from the Ohio-1 district in 2022, and Chabot will be left with the increasingly blue Hamilton County.
  • The “Snake on the Lake District” – otherwise known as Ohio’s 9th congressional district – is a ludicrous creation that, in 2011, the GOP thought could lead to two Democratic incumbents bloodying each other in the primary to the point that the GOP would win the seat in the fall. Well, that didn't work out. Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur won and still represents the district. It is truly a ridiculous piece of gerrymandering – a narrow strip of land hugging the shore of Lake Erie all the way from Toledo to Cleveland. It is likely to be replaced by a Democratic district made up mostly of Toledo and the rest of Lucas County.
  • District 13 in northeast Ohio, which includes most of the Mahoning Valley, could be eliminated altogether or split up so badly that incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan would have little chance of winning again.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision on gerrymandering cases involving North Carolina and Maryland. The conservative majority, in a 5-4 vote, said the drawing of political district maps is the job of the state legislatures and not the highest court in the land.

Ohio had a similar lawsuit on the U.S. Supreme Court's runway, waiting to take off, but it was made moot by the North Carolina-Maryland decision.

But Ohio Republicans such as Attorney General Dave Yost were quick to see that Ohio had its own remedy to the old gerrymandering system. It was a constitutional amendment placed on the 2018 ballot by the Ohio General Assembly and it passed with 75% of the vote.

Ohio's new plan would require that any map drawn up by the legislature pass with at least 60% of the vote in the Ohio House and Senate. Under the circumstances, it is highly likely that Republicans will dominate both the House and Senate in 2021. In order to become law, the map would have to have the support of at least 40% of the minority party – the Democrats, most likely.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan and the managing editor of the political newsletter Sabato's Crystal Ball, told WVXU that while the constitutional amendment was drawn up to make redistricting less partisan, "we'll have to see how effective it is."

"If there is going to be a compromise map, it is going to end up with more than the four Democratic districts that exist now,'' Kondik said. "And the Cincinnati-Hamilton County district would almost certainly be one."

The constitutional amendment discourages the splitting of counties and large cities. Under the present map, much of the eastern half of Hamilton County is in the Ohio-2 district, represented by Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup.

Wenstrup's district now stretches all the way to Pike and Scioto counties. It could certainly do without Hamilton County, but an all-Hamilton County district could be poison for Chabot's congressional career in 2022 – assuming that one of the Democratic women running for his seat this year, Kate Schroder and Nikki Foster, doesn’t pull off an upset win in 2020.

Alex Triantafilou, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said taking Warren County away from Chabot might make his re-election more difficult. Hamilton County is, after all, a blue county now. But Triantafilou said it does not mean that Chabot would necessarily lose.

"Last summer, a lot of people thought Aftab (Pureval) would take Chabot down, but Steve ran a brilliant campaign, defining his opponent for the voters, and he won easily,'' Triantafilou said.

"Steve Chabot is regularly underestimated by the political establishment,'' he continued. "That's a mistake."

David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said that if the new Ohio system were to break down and the Democrats believed that the new map was skewed against them, a lawsuit would be filed – but this time in the state courts, not the federal courts.

Niven said the anti-gerrymandering forces could win that case.

"It's hard to see the Ohio Supreme Court saying that it is O.K. for the Republicans to hold 75% of the seats when they only get 50% of the vote,'' Niven said.

"None of this means that the majority party couldn't skew things, but it is going to be very difficult under the new system,'' Niven added. "It's the difference between mastering checkers and mastering chess. Chess is a lot harder."

“Politically Speaking”is WVXU reporter Howard Wilkinson’s weekly column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us. Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.