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Purple Ohio? Parties in the former bellwether state take lessons from 2023 abortion, marijuana votes

Mar 11, 2024, 9:17 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — For more than half a century, Ohio was one of the most important states to watch during presidential election years, a place where both parties competed vigorously for support from voters who were often genuinely undecided.

Then came Donald Trump.

Beginning in 2016, Ohio became reliably Republican as more and more voters embraced the New York businessman’s brash brand of politics. When Trump won the state in 2020 without clinching the White House, he became the first to win Ohio but lose the presidency since the state sided with Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960. With that, the Buckeye State’s bellwether status was officially unrung.

Now there are hints that the dynamic may be shifting again after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal constitutional protections for abortion. Ohio voters responded last year to the 2022 ruling by overwhelmingly approving an amendment enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. They did so after swarming polls to defeat a Republican effort that would have made doing so more difficult. The state also legalized recreational marijuana.

There’s a risk of overinterpreting the results from 2023, but the victories have encouraged Democrats defending a pivotal U.S. Senate seat this year.

Last August’s GOP-backed effort to make amending Ohio’s constitution harder showed Ohioans that “Republican politicians were not on their side,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Walters.

“The Democratic Party isn’t getting ahead of themselves after just one election, but it does provide some hope that steadily, and with a lot of work, Ohioans could drift more to the left than to the right in upcoming elections,” she said.

Democrats’ most immediate concern is re-electing three-term U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. He’s unopposed in the March 19 primary as Republicans hash out who will run against him, but Brown is viewed as among the nation’s most vulnerable Democrats in November’s general election, when voters also will cast ballots for president and Congress.

Delaware County voter Janelle Tucker, 53, said as she perused the floral section of a Kroger recently that she can’t predict how Ohio will vote this fall. She’s a Democrat and a “big fan” of Brown but said she just doesn’t know what will happen.

“Ohio used to be sort of the pulse of the voter, and it’s not anymore,” she said. “It’s fascinating because it seems like the voter strongly approved women’s rights, but the representatives don’t support the voters.”

Since Trump, Tucker said, “I feel like I don’t know my community anymore.”

Brown stands as a rare Democrat to be elected statewide in Ohio. Republicans control every statewide non-judicial office, both chambers of the state Legislature with supermajorities and the Ohio Supreme Court — and they have for years.

Mark Weaver, a long-time Ohio-based Republican consultant, said, “Anyone who suggests that Ohio has become purple again is going to have to offer up evidence other than 2023.”

He chalked up the resounding success of November’s Issue 1, which guaranteed an individual’s right “to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” to abortion rights groups outraising and outspending their anti-abortion opponents, therefore driving more left-leaning voters to the polls.

Unless those same groups put similar millions into Brown’s race, Ohio will “return to its reliable red state results,” Weaver said.

That’s what happened in 2022, when then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan ran what was widely considered a textbook campaign for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Rob Portman, only to lose by more than 6 points to Republican venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance. Vance had been backed by Trump.

But Ryan failed to garner the financial support from national Democrats that Brown is receiving. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has committed at least $10 million to re-elect him and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Brown has a shot at keeping his seat if he focuses on abortion in a way that connects with voters.

Brown, acutely aware of the issue’s potential to help him, has wasted no time contrasting his stance on abortion with those of his Republican opponents: Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan.

“I have always been clear about where I stand: I support abortion access for all women,” he wrote in a text to voters the week after the November referendum. “I know where my opponents stand, too: All three would overturn the will of Ohioans by voting for a national abortion ban.”

Moreno, LaRose and Dolan each celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which returned abortion policy to the states, but now support a 15-week federal abortion limit that’s been cast as a compromise by influential anti-abortion groups. The Ohio Republicans’ stances vary on imposing limits even earlier and on allowing exceptions later in pregnancy.

Abortion is also a hot topic in three closely watched Ohio Supreme Court races, where Democrats are defending two sitting justices and dreaming of flipping a third open seat to take control of the seven-member court. The future of Ohio abortion law could be forged there, and on other states’ high courts, as the legal questions surrounding abortion rights are hashed out.

Niven’s takeaway from 2023? “If the Democrats could make elections strictly about issues, they would win,” he said.

Supporting evidence for that theory can be found in Ohio’s suburbs, which may prove pivotal again.

In 2018, Brown lost three suburban counties — Butler, outside Cincinnati; and Delaware and Licking, outside Columbus — where the abortion rights issue went on to win last November. In two others where Issue 1 lost narrowly — the Cincinnati area’s Clermont and Warren counties — the abortion question outperformed Brown’s 2018 percentage by double digits.

All five of those counties voted for Trump in 2020.

At the Keystone Pub & Patio in Delaware County, Ken Wentworth, 53, said he isn’t sure what the future holds. He feels conflicted himself. A moderate Republican, he said he voted for marijuana legalization last year and “chickened out” and abstained on the abortion issue.

“My friends that are Democrats, they aren’t like kinda Democrats, they’re Democrats with all capital bold letters,” he said. “And, on the Republican side, they are right-wing times a hundred.”

He said he remains undecided in the Senate race and doesn’t like his choices for president, either, though he would support Trump over Biden if no other alternative emerges.

Independent voter Michelle Neeld, a 43-year-old factory worker from rural Morrow County, voted yes on both abortion rights and marijuana legalization last year. She doesn’t want to see Trump back in the White House but says she wouldn’t vote for Biden.

She does feel Ohio is moving to the left. “I think it’s getting there,” she said.

Christopher McKnight Nichols, an Ohio State University professor of history, said the roughly 57% support received by both Ohio ballot issues in November “shows just how weak many of those conservative issues are with actual Republican voters.” He said it will likely prompt a “reconfiguration” within the state GOP.

Ohio Republican Party Chair Alex Triantafilou said that, given the GOP’s longstanding success in the state, he believes some within the party are overconfident — “and I’ve shared that privately and publicly with our party faithful.”

“I think anybody who ignores the results of 2023 does so at their own peril,” he said. “So, I’m not an overconfident Republican. I do think we’re going to do well. I do believe (if he’s the nominee) President Trump will do well in Ohio. But I think we have our work cut out for us.”

___

Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Purple Ohio? Parties in the former bellwether state take lessons from 2023 abortion, marijuana votes