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2020 In Ohio: A Tumultuous Election Broke Records And Cemented GOP Power

President Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Circleville.
Nick Evans
President Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Circleville.

A year ago, 2020 looked like it was going to be another busy election year in Ohio. But with the pandemic crowding out most other news and keeping candidates off the campaign trail, the election season took several unexpected turns.

President Trump held his first campaign rally of the year in Toledo in January, while the Democratic field was still focused on early primary states. But after most candidates dropped out, and COVID-19 started to spread, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden both came to Ohio ahead of its March primary.

Hours before the polls were to open in Ohio on St. Patrick’s Day, a legal scramble ensued as Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose attempted to shutter polling places due to the pandemic. That resulted in conflicting reporting by boards of elections, and questions for poll workers like Jim McKee.

“The fact that it was so immediate was very confusing too – the judge ruled, and less than two minutes later, the board of elections was saying the opposite of what he had just ruled," McKee said. "So I wasn’t sure, should I set my alarm clock for 4 a.m.?"

By the time McKee woke up at 4, he found out the primary was off: For the first time ever, Ohio's election was moved to a mostly mail-in vote, with the deadline extended by the Ohio legislature to April 28.

Sanders officially dropped out of the race in April, leaving Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee even before Ohioans finished filling out their ballots.

The general election proved just as strange. Over the first few months of the pandemic, there were few rallies or door-to-door campaigning. During the summer, Ohioans were prominently featured in each party's conventions, which were moved online.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Amtrak's Alliance Train Station, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Alliance, Ohio.
Credit Andrew Harnik / Associated Press
Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Amtrak's Alliance Train Station, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Alliance, Ohio.

Republican National Committee co-chair and Trump Ohio campaign adviser Bob Paduchik said that showed Ohio’s centrality to the election – even amid questions over whether Ohio was still a bellwether.

"The fact of the matter is that it is important, it's a barometer for the rest for the country," Paduchik said. "It's not insignificant that attention has been put on Ohio. So many resources have been put in place in it. We know the state matters to the president's electoral victory and we're not taking it for granted."

Trump only stayed off the campaign trail for a few months. He came to Ohio in August, with the intention of meeting with DeWine first. But the governor got a positive COVID test result that scuttled the meeting, before two further tests showed his result was a false positive.

By this time, DeWine was battling some fellow Republicans over state health orders aimed at battling the pandemic, while Trump continued to underplay the severity of COVID-19, dismiss the use of face masks and criticize restrictions.  

“This is a tough time," DeWine said in September, before meeting Trump between a pair of rallies in Toledo and near Dayton. "We have some people who are unemployed. We have people who, you know, don't want to wear a mask and, you know, a lot of different things. So I'm going to continue to focus on what I need to do. I think that's my job. I think it's what people elected me to do."

DeWine also declined to criticize Trump's repeated attempts to undermine the presidential election. However, DeWine did say the president's comments that people should vote by mail and then in person to "test the system" would be illegal.

As Trump held those rallies, and counties that hosted them saw COVID case increases, some Republicans started to back his Democratic opponent. Ex-Gov. John Kasich spoke at the virtual Democratic National Convention, while his former presidential campaign adviser John Weaver helped formed the Lincoln Project and state-level offshoots, including Ohio’s Operation Grant.

Former state lawmaker Rocky Saxbe was among those encouraging votes for Biden from GOP critics of Trump.

“He has the party and party leaders held hostage and we are being led over the cliff," Saxbe said.

Women who support President Donald Trump gathered at a campaign meet-up in Canton, Ohio, on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, to rally for the Trump campaign.
Credit Farnoush Amiri / Associated Press
Associated Press
Women who support President Donald Trump gathered at a campaign meet-up in Canton, Ohio, on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, to rally for the Trump campaign.

Cleveland hosted the first presidential debate in September, and afterward Biden, who hadn’t campaigned much in person, began a whistle-stop tour of several states starting in Alliance.

The lack of masks on the Trump site of the debate was noted by many. A few days after the debate several people, including Trump, tested positive for COVID-19 – resulting in his hospitalization for several days.

But soon after recovering, Trump started rallies again, including one in Circleville. He also discouraged early voting by mail, something Ohioans have done since 2006, while flyers went out to Republican voters promoting voting early for Trump.

Polls through the fall showed Biden with a lead in Ohio, and as early voting began in October, Democratic-affiliated voters flooded boards of elections with absentee ballot requests. But Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said GOP voters were motivated too, even before big events like the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I think the intensity in this election was already a 12 on the 1-to-10 scale. And this just ratchets it up to, like, 15," Newhouse said. "It's hard to see how people could get any more focused in this election.”

Both parties worked to mobilize their voters ahead of the November contest. Women, especially in the suburbs, were expected to be key. But there were questions about whether Trump had maxed out turnout in rural areas, and Democrats were watching voters of color and those in urban areas.

Turnout bore out that analysis. Ohio saw a near-record of registered voters. Lines were long at early voting sites, especially on the weekends, with some voters standing in the snow for hours.

Early voting numbers hit a historic high, and an all-time record of nearly 6 million Ohioans cast ballots.

While the results of the presidential election took several days to call, on Election Night it became clear that Trump easily won Ohio. He ended up taking the state by 475,000 votes, about the same margin he won Ohio in 2016.

But this year was a little different, as noted by Republican strategist Mark Weaver.

"The big surprise is that pieces of eastern Ohio that used to be Democrat, reliably so, are now turning Republican, Mahoning County perhaps being the most prominent of those," Weaver said.

That was one of the counties experts suggested were worth watching. Mahoning and Lorain Counties both switched to Republicans after being close in 2016. But Montgomery County, which voted Republican for president in 2016 for the first time since 1988, flipped back to blue.

Joe Biden's victory also marked the first election since 1960 in which a Republican won Ohio but lost the White House.

Democrats did win one of two Ohio Supreme Court races, bringing the Republican majority down to 4-3. But elsewhere in Ohio, it was more good news for Republicans, who netted three more seats in the state House and one in the Senate, further cementing their supermajorities. Republican incumbents also held onto every U.S. House seat, even several that polls had shown were possible flips for Democrats.

Following the election, Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper resigned, saying the party needs new leadership. No new chair has been named yet.