There were some surprises buried in the results of the 2018 election, many of them for Democrats, who lost the five big statewide executive offices. These results weren’t surprising to some consultants who have worked with both major political parties in Ohio, and they could be disappointing to non-partisans.
Ohio’s 3rd state Senate district has been Republican since 1951. In January, the first Asian-American elected to the Ohio Senate will occupy that seat – and she’s a Democrat. Tina Maharath won by just over the half-percent margin for an automatic recount without party support and against a barrage of ads from her better known Republican opponent, state Rep. Anne Gonzales.
That historic flip wasn’t the only surprise. Elections data expert Mike Dawson found two others – in the numbers for Democratic candidate for governor Richard Cordray, who lost to Mike DeWine, and Republican Congressman Steve Stivers, who beat challenger Rick Neal.
“When Cordray ran against DeWine in 2010, he won Grove City 54-46. This time around he lost it 54-46. Steve Stivers has normally won Upper Arlington by huge margins, and this time he lost it by a couple of hundred votes,” Dawson said.
And he has a theory why: “It didn’t have anything to do with the people in their own communities rejecting them. It had to do with them rejecting the party label attached to their name.”
Democratic strategist Aaron Pickrell agrees. He managed winning campaigns for President Obama and Gov. Ted Strickland – and Strickland’s loss in 2010.
“When voters don’t have as much information about a particular candidate, then I think they fall back into that tribal basis in going with who they may have supported last time. And I think for a lot of voters in Ohio, they supported President Trump in 2016,” Pickrell said.
That’s not always the case – for instance, Democratic US Sen. Sherrod Brown won re-election, though Republicans swept the statewide executive offices.
Neil Newhouse is with the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, and has done work in Ohio and nationally. Newhouse said Brown is basically a brand name at this point, but he notes the race was a lot closer than most people expected.
“There is ticket splitting in those marquee races. But in some of these other races where voters don’t know the candidates that well, they tend to revert to party-line loyalty,” Newhouse said.
And that made turning out reliable voters all the more important. Pickrell said President Trump’s seven visits to Ohio in 2018 nationalized this midterm, and they made a big difference in a year where both the Democratic and Republican bases were energized.
“There’s no bigger megaphone to inspire the base than the presidency, and they used that megaphone in a smart way,” Pickrell said. “President Trump’s trips here, and the Vice President’s trips, and the Trump family trips – I think that really makes a big difference.”
Newhouse said that’s an example of one of the two styles of campaigning – stimulation. The other is persuasion – critically important in an election where lower turnout is expected and where there are lower-profile races and candidates getting less attention.
“There’s always 12-15 percent of the voters who say, ‘I vote for the person only.’ But when push comes to shove, party still is a pretty strong tug on that voter to vote either Democrat or Republican," Newhouse said. "And truthfully, that’s why third party candidates have such a difficult time getting a significant percentage of the vote because voters don’t want to waste their vote – they want to vote for one of the two parties.”
Newhouse said he was especially intrigued by the vote this year, with Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania showed what he calls their blue tendencies while Republicans scored big wins in Ohio, which he says may be the first indication that it’s fully red.
But Pickrell said Brown’s win by 6 points – in a state that voted for Trump by 8 points just two years ago – shows a Democrat can still win statewide in Ohio.