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Ohio Democrats Have A Plan To Win In 2020: Focus On Workers And Suburbs

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks at a Culinary Union hall Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Las Vegas.
John Locher
Associated Press
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks at a Culinary Union hall Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Las Vegas.

It was a freezing cold day in Clintonville on Dec. 17, 2019, the evening before the U.S. House voted to impeach President Trump. Some 200 people gathered, chanting and waving signs, many of which were homemade.

Protesters said they wanted to send their message to Congress. Connie Spencer held a sign urging motorists, "Honk to Impeach."

“I was a Republican my entire life,” Spencer says. “I quit the Republican party in 2016. I was done with Donald Trump when he made fun of the disabled reporter in the audience. When that happened, I knew that somebody like that could not be president and represent all of the people. You need to respect and love everyone here. Everything, from his immigration to taxes to anything he does, he’s not looking out for the people. He’s looking out for himself.”

Ohio Democrats are looking to 2020 with optimism. Party leaders say they are seeing signs that areas of the state that voted for Trump in 2016, and for Republican statewide leaders in 2018, are ready to vote for Democrats in 2020.

And Democrats say they have a plan to make that happen.

Sights On The Suburbs

Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper said he sees other former Republicans who are fed up with Trump right now, especially in the suburbs of Ohio’s larger cities.

“These suburbs are now the largest voting block in Ohio,” Pepper says. “They are the quickest growing voting block and they are coming our direction.”

Ohio Voting Guide: What To Know About The 2020 Election

While Ohio has been solidly red for the last few election cycles, Delaware County is one place where the party thinks that shift to blue is happening. The county has been a Republican stronghold and has the highest incomes and property values statewide.

Delaware County Democratic Party chair Peg Watkins said that, in the most recent election, Democrats saw some gains in key local races.

“I think it’s exciting,” she said. “I think we’ve got some new opportunities coming our way and for the first time in a long time, we’ve got some elected officials who are Democrats. We’ve got Heather Karr, who was elected the top vote-getter on the Powell City Council.”

In a six-person race, Karr topped the field with 23% of the vote.

"I believe that southern Delaware County is changing,” Karr says. “I think the political landscape is changing here, but I also think, because of our national politics, people are looking at politics, especially local politics, a lot differently. I think they are looking for someone who appears to be moderate, who looks like they can get along with people.”

Karr said she knows some Republicans voted for her because they are personal friends and acquaintances. There’s another group in particular that she thinks her candidacy resonated with: women.

"I’ve talked to several women who have basically said, ‘I can’t even imagine voting for a man right now.’ You know a woman is going to come in and at least they are going to know how to talk to people and not insult someone in casual conversation," Karr said.

Democrats say Trump turns off women, moderate Republicans and independents with his campaign rhetoric and his tweets. Pepper says the party hopes to parlay that disdain into votes for its candidates.

“In some states, some people say, ‘Aw, anybody who voted for Trump won’t vote for a Democrat.’ But in Ohio, we know that’s not true,” Pepper says. “People who voted for Trump also voted for Obama. And they voted for Sherrod Brown.”

Jane Timken, chair of the Ohio Republican Party, doubts that Democrats can swing more suburban voters.

"I don't think it gets them there mathematically," Timken said in October. "If you look at the 2018 election results, we won our statewide quite handily and I think that speaks volumes."

Focus On Workers

Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator won re-election in 2018 with 53% of the vote against then-Rep. Jim Renacci, who aligned himself with and won support from Trump. While some had hoped for a stronger showing for the candidate, who’s considered the most popular Democrat in Ohio, Brown did win several counties that Trump had taken in 2016.

Brown said he thinks he appeals to workers.

“You run a campaign thinking about workers through the eyes of workers,” Brown says. “You plan to govern the same way come 2021.”

The strategy of Democrats in 2020 is pretty simple: Focus on issues that matter to workers and speak to those disaffected suburban voters.

"If we can continue to see the shift and build on it, and it’s largely women voters, and we narrow our losses in the more rural parts of the state where Republicans obviously do well," Pepper said.

Democrats will be focusing on the lighter red areas of the state. Pepper also says they won’t be talking about the impeachment much. 

“I don’t think that’s the campaign message next year,” Pepper says. “I think it’s the duty of being in office right now that it is pursued.”

Instead, Democrats plan to reach out to the suburban voters who are turned off by Trump’s messages. They’ll focus on Northeast Ohio where Trump won votes by talking about manufacturing – during the 2016 campaign, Trump told workers in the Mahoning Valley they shouldn’t sell their homes because their jobs at the GM plant would stay.

This year, the GM plant in Lordstown closed and lost 4,500 workers. Recently, though, GM and a South Korean company announced plans to make electric vehicle batteries at the same plant, employing 1,100 people. 

Tom Suddes, a veteran journalist who has seen changes in Ohio’s voting patterns during the past three decades, said that strategy could work for Democrats, especially if they pick a moderate presidential candidate.

“One of the Democrats who did best in the state is Jimmy Carter in 1976 because he carried a number of Appalachian counties and there were a fair number of religious people there,” Suddes says. “They saw him as a person who had some values and they shared a cultural commonality. I think that’s probably going to be the case again if Democrats are going to do well in the state.”

Democrats know getting that message of shared values out to voters will be key to capturing more than just the anti-Trump vote. They want to focus on what they call “kitchen table issues” instead of merely throwing red meat to their base, a strategy that party officials says worked in Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

“Trump has taken the Republican Party very far away from its core values,” Watkins says. “And when I say that, I’m also talking about American values, because I believe the Democratic Party represents the best of American values. We put people first. People above monied interests.”

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.