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COLUMBUS — Democrats are banking that enough Ohioans are angry about the economy and are riled up over the public-employee union fight as they seek to reclaim a toehold in state government this year.
Republicans, meanwhile, believe President Obama’s low poll numbers, problems with the federal health-care law rollout, and a belief among many Ohioans that they are better off under Gov. John Kasich will continue the party’s dominance of state government.
The only Democrat to win a statewide office in the last four years was the only one the party refused to back — William O’Neill, a Supreme Court candidate who forced the issue by upsetting the party’s chosen one in a primary contest.
The party suffered a complete sweep in 2010, losing the governor’s office and every other statewide race and surrendering its brief control of the House of Representatives. After the new Republican majority redrew legislative districts, Democrats saw their clout fade further in 2012 as Republicans added a veto-proof, super-majority in the House to their long-held control of the Senate.
Mention the suggestion that the party needs a state-office win sets off the rarely soft-spoken Chris Redfern, the party’s eight-year chairman and state representative from Catawba Island.
“Ask Mike Bell. What’s he doing today?” he said, referring to the former independent Toledo mayor who appeared in TV ads to support Governor Kasich on Senate Bill 5, the law hamstringing public employee unions. Voters soundly rejected that law in 2011.
But the man who replaced Mr. Bell is not a Democrat but another independent, D. Michael Collins. Local Democrats failed to get a candidate through the primary.
Democrats also delivered the critical Ohio vote for President Obama’s second term and re-elected Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate in 2012. But simultaneously, at the state level, Democrats were losing seats in the Ohio House while essentially trading its sole justice on the 6-1 Republican Supreme Court for another.
“Obviously, we have an improving economy,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges. “That’s required a lot of hard work. No one is spiking the ball. No one is suggesting we are all the way back. But one thing I do know for certain is we cannot go back to the policies we had back under [Democratic Gov. Ted] Strickland — higher taxes, a budget not balanced, and no plan for how to balance the budget going forward.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the importance of keeping Ohio “blue” in 2012 cannot be understated.
“We are a presidentially oriented country,” he said. “The fact that Ohio stayed blue in the presidential race probably equals or outweighs the results of other elections. If 2016 underlines the blue trend or contradicts it, that race is far more important.”
Still, he said, if Democrats defeat a Republican incumbent governor this year, that would be “news.” Mr. Sabato’s Crystal Ball weekly online newsletter ranks the Ohio governor’s race in 2014 as “likely Republican.”
Mr. Redfern is quick to point out that Ohio’s unemployment rate now exceeds that of the nation as a whole and argues that resolve over Republicans’ handling of the collective-bargaining fight in 2011 has only hardened since.
“Cops. Firefighters. Teachers. Jeep workers. Small business owners. Retirees. They feel the Kasich economy every day…,” Mr. Redfern said. “The economy drives turnout. … The Jeep worker knows that it was Barack Obama and Marcy [Kaptur] who stood up for them. The teachers over at Bowsher [High School] understand.”
Democrats also hope that Mr. Kasich’s problems with the Tea Party element of his own party, in part because of his championing of Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, will lead to a defection of GOP votes to expected Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Charlie Earl, a former Republican state representative from Bowling Green.
The importance of the economy to his re-election chances isn’t lost on Mr. Kasich.
The governor briefly used a news conference in his Statehouse office on Friday, during which he announced a deal with a Chinese auto glass firm to create 800 jobs at an idled Dayton area plant, to tout what he considers to be economic accomplishments.
“Ohio had been going through many difficult times, but we are doing better,” he said. “We have reversed the decline of 350,000 jobs before I became governor, and now we have grown about 160,000 private-sector jobs over the last three years, with, by the way, a balanced budget and surpluses.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic effort to take on Mr. Kasich has faltered out of the gate. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald lost whatever momentum he had with his selection and subsequent shedding of state Sen. Eric Kearney (D., Cincinnati) as his running mate following revelations of the senator’s business-related tax problems.
Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune is testing the waters for a possible Democratic primary challenge to Mr. FitzGerald even as a threatened GOP primary challenge to Mr. Kasich seemed to fizzle.
John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said it wouldn’t be wise to read too much into the sweep of 2010.
“It would be difficult for a party, no matter how well organized, to stand up to that big a wave…,” he said. “There are some opportunities for Democrats at the moment. … Midterm elections do tend to favor the party not in the White House, but there is not the same confidence factor as we saw in 2010. Democrats face a less unfavorable environment in 2014.”
Democrats are offering a slate of candidates who are largely little known outside their power bases:
● Former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, who lost his first statewide bid for auditor four years ago, is back to take on Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine.
● It will be a battle of war veterans when Democrats offer state Rep. Connie Pillich (D., Cincinnati) against Ohio Treasurer and former U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
● Voting rights will be front and center as state Sen. Nina Turner (D., Cleveland) squares off against Republican incumbent Secretary of State Jon Husted.
● Republican Auditor Dave Yost will defend his office against state Rep. John Carney (D., Columbus).
● Democrats will offer another Cleveland area judge named O’Donnell for Supreme Court. There’s already Justice Terrence O’Donnell, a Republican, on the bench, and this time it will be Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell squaring off against Kasich appointee Judith French.
● State Rep. Tom Letson (D., Warren) will run against incumbent Republican Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.