AMAC Exclusive By Daniel Roman
This weekend, Donald Trump will fly to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio to hold a rally. The location, Lorain county, is fitting. Long a Democratic stronghold, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and even Hillary Clinton carried it with 53%, 56%, 58%, 57%, and 48% respectively. In 2020 Donald Trump became the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to win it. Perhaps in a further touch of irony, Lorain contains Oberlin College, one of the most left-wing Liberal Arts Colleges in America, which was rocked in 2019 by campus protests over whether the dining services serving Sushi qualified as “cultural appropriation.” The divisions within Lorain county qualify as a microcosm of those within the nation as a whole, while the shift in Lorain shows how Donald Trump helped transform Ohio and much of the upper Midwest into Trump country.
That transformation was evident on election night 2020, when Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in Ohio by a margin of 8%, 53% to 45%, approximately the same margin as in 2016 despite the collapse in support for third party candidates that ate into Hillary’s numbers. Despite polls showing a close race in 2020, Texas, Minnesota, and New Hampshire were all closer. This is a far cry from 2004, when Democrats placed all their hopes for defeating George Bush on Ohio, and nearly succeeded, losing the state by around 1% while losing nationally by 3%. Obama carried the state in both 2008 and 2012.
The conservative shift has been reflected down ballot. Despite a strong Democratic year nationally, Republicans won every statewide office on the ballot in 2018 except the Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Sherod Brown underperformed polls to turn in an anemic 53-47% margin over his underfunded Republican opponent. This included the governors race, which sites such as Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated as Lean D, and in which Republican Mike DeWine ultimately defeated Democrat and Elizabeth Warren protégé Richard Cordray 51%-47%.
When President Trump visits, he will be meeting with a variety of candidates for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat, the fate of which is all but being decided in the Republican primary. Democrats lost the last two races for the seat in 2010 and 2016 by 16% and 21% respectively, in the second case running Ohio’s only living Democratic former governor.
If Ohio is a battleground that Republicans now dominate, their triumph comes after more than a century and a half of struggle. No state has been more central to the modern identity of the Republican Party. In fact, the Republican Party itself was arguably forged in the battleground of Ohio.
Salmon P. Chase became the first elected Republican Governor in the country in 1855, before going on to become Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Senator Benjamin Wade was among the most radical of the anti-slavery “Radical Republicans” championing African American Civil Rights and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. This reflected the divisions in a state which had more to gain than anywhere else in America from making the country work, and more to lose than perhaps any other state if it failed. The northern coastline along the Great Lakes was closely linked with the industrial economy of Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Appalachian East shared a culture, not to mention transportation links along with mining and oil with West Virginia. The central city of Columbus was the center of conflict between Protestant and Catholic immigrants which drove the Know-Nothing Movement. The southern tier, stretching along the border with Kentucky from Cincinnati, depended on open trade. Ohio needed a party which supported industrial development, unlike the Democrats, and which welcomed immigrants, unlike the Know-Nothings, and which supported a strong union without the big government innovations which would divide it, like the Whigs. It was out of this demand for a quintessential Ohio, and American party, that the Republicans emerged.
In the 20th Century, Ohio Republicanism moved into the national mainstream. The Taft dynasty provided a president, two Senators, and a governor, along with a Supreme Court Chief Justice. More importantly, it provided an ideological direction. Fiercely anti-Communist, but suspicious of foreign involvement, supportive of business, but concerned with free trade, wary of unions, but believing that American strength required ensuring steady long-term employment rather than the sweatshop conditions of foreign laborers which gave rise to Communist subversion, Senator Robert Taft was known as “Mr. Republican” for good reason. He defined the hard-nosed, common-sense American Republicanism of the Midwest, as opposed to the establishmentarian squishiness of the Northeast, and the occasionally over-enthusiastic libertarian worship of corporations and globalism of the West.
Taft may have failed to secure the nomination, but he left his mark on the party, and the nation. In Ohio, the Tafts were joined by James Rhodes, who served four terms as governor between 1960 and 1980, only to be defeated narrowly to secure a fifth term. Democrats occasionally won elections in Ohio, but they were hard-nosed Democrats who were forced to reflect the values of Ohio Republicanism, whether on trade, immigration, or foreign policy. This alignment held for nearly a century and a half. The last of the Tafts left office in 2006, exactly 101 years after Salmon Chase was inaugurated as Ohio’s first Republican governor.
When that final Taft, Bob Taft III, departed public office in 2006, his successor was Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland, who defeated Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, an outspoken African American Evangelical Conservative by 22%. That year was a poor one for Republicans as a whole in Ohio. Democrats won every statewide office, and captured the State House. Their success was driven by revulsion at George W. Bush, whose policies were the antithesis of the Republicanism of Robert Taft and Rhodes. They had been skeptical of foreign intervention for its own sake. Bush had invaded Iraq, committing the US to open-ended nation building. They had been concerned about selling out manufacturing for free trade and suspicious of Communism. Bush championed China’s entry into the WTO. While anti-union and small government, they had been concerned about wage competition driving workers to desperation. Bush championed amnesty and massive expansion of the welfare state.
Ohio’s rejection of Bush Republicanism made sense in 2006, but Democrats, especially under Barack Obama, confused this for an embrace of their agenda. Rather than filling in the gap created by Bush’s failures, they doubled down, embracing internationalism. This seemed to work in 2008 and 2012, but Democrats were aided greatly by the decision of the GOP to double-down on the Bush direction. In fact, it would be hard to think of candidates for President less appealing to Ohio voters than Arizona Senator John McCain, most famous for his support of interventionism abroad and mass immigration at home, and Mitt Romney, the champion of the globalist capitalism of the elite, rather than the American capitalism of the Tafts.
There were ominous signs for Democrats, missed at the time, that their triumph in 2006 had been a “dead cat” bounce. They had not won a governor’s race since 1986, and as it would turn out, 2006 is the only governor’s race they have won in 34 years as of 2021. In 2010, Strickland was defeated for reelection, along with every other Democrat, and Democrats lost the State House. While Democrats consoled themselves with the narrow margin of Strickland’s loss, 49% to 47%, Obama’s victory in 2012 over Romney and Senator Sherod Brown’s reelection reinforced their complacency.
That complacency even survived 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the state by a 51% to 43% margin, and Ted Strickland lost by 59% to 38% margin in the Senate race. It was only after they failed to make progress in 2018, and they were blown out by Donald Trump in 2020 despite polling showing a tossup, that they conceded the state had changed.
Ohio’s new Electoral Geography
If Lorain County is one example of the shift in politics in Ohio, it is a shift which can best be described by looking at two congressional districts, one currently held by a Democrat, and the other held by Democrats until 2010, including former Governor Ted Strickland. The first is Ohio’s 13th district, centered around Akron and Youngstown. Formerly the heart of industrial midwestern America, it is represented by Tim Ryan, one of only four Democrats from Ohio’s 16-strong congressional delegation. Drawn in 2011 to be a safe Democratic seat, the district voted 53%-44% for Al Gore, 56%-44% for John Kerry, 62%-36% and 63%-36% for Barack Obama, and even 51%-45% for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Joe Biden won it by a mere 51%-48%. That collapse in what was a safe Democratic area even in 2016 is a transformation visible few other places in the country.
One of those few others is Ohio’s 6th Congressional district represented by Republican Bill Johnson. Formerly represented by Ted Strickland, Johnson defeated Strickland’s Democratic successor Charlie Wilson in 2010, and won a rematch against Wilson 53%-47% in 2012. He has not been seriously challenged since. And it is easy to see why. The 6th district voted for George W. Bush 49%-47% in 2000 and 51%-49% in 2004, for John McCain 50%-48% in 2008, and for Mitt Romney 55%-43% in 2012. Then in 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a staggering margin of 69%-27% which Trump increased to 72%-27% against Joe Biden in 2020. Like much of Appalachia, Democratic hostility to coal and rural life has led to a transformational shift.
These two regions of Ohio, the industrial Cleveland region, and Appalachia, account for much of the Democratic implosion that Donald Trump helped precipitate. They are not, to be fair, the entire state. There are two other key regions. The first is region surrounding Columbus, which is the fastest growing region of the state, and the second is around Cincinnati. Both, however, are historically Republican. If the old Democratic strongholds are swinging massively to the GOP, the traditionally Republican Cincinnati and Columbus areas are drifting in the opposite direction. But they are starting from a strong Republican starting point and Cincinnati is the rare Republican city.
Columbus is a different matter. Franklin County, where Columbus is located, has grown from 1 million people in 2000 to 1.3 million in 2019. In that period, it has gone from a 49%-48% margin for Al Gore, to a 60%-39% margin for Barack Obama in 2008, to a 65%-33% margin for Joe Biden in 2020. More affluent than any other part of the state, with a service-based economy, Columbus is the one part of the state which looks like the new Democratic party. It is probably not a coincidence that Delaware County in the Columbus suburbs, the richest county in the state, saw the largest swing against Donald Trump in 2020, going from a 55-39% Trump margin to a 52-46% Biden one.
The problem for Democrats is that these shifts, while enough to keep their 8% loss steady between 2016 and 2020, are nowhere near enough to reverse it. And the voters in these regions are perfectly happy to split their tickets, voting Democrat for President and Republican down ballot. Which may be why the GOP controls 75% of the State Senate and Congressional Delegation. They are an exceedingly poor base from which Democrats can build any sort of statewide coalition.
That may be why they are barely trying, all but conceding the 2022 Senate race to whomever wins the GOP nomination. If anything, Democrats are panicking over redistricting, and fears they may see a new map increase the Republican edge from the current 12-4 to 12-3 or even 13-2.
Donald Trump will arrive in Cleveland a conquering hero. The man who more than anyone else, ended the 160 year struggle between Democrats and Republicans for power in Ohio. More than that, he did so by carrying out a restoration. Donald Trump restored Ohio Republicanism and its traditions to a central role in the national GOP. He replaced globalism with America First, refocused the priorities of the party on those of the American worker, and moved the Republican Party away from its obsession with foreign wars and military adventurism. That is the Republicanism of Robert Taft, and that is the legacy of Donald J. Trump.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.