Clark County remains divided politically

The Clark County Republican party could control the county commission for the first time in about 20 years, if preliminary election results hold.

But that might not signal a significant shift to the right for Clark County as it remains a swing county.

Overall elected offices remain divided between the two parties and a shrinking majority of Clark County voters are independents.

About 51 percent of Clark County voters are independents, down from about 70 percent in 1998.

Clark County is made up of about 28 percent Democrats and about 20 percent Republicans, Wittenberg University Political Science Professor Rob Baker said, and candidates from both political parties have to swing independent voters.

“What’s happening in Clark County is happening nationally as well. Americans are sorting themselves out along party lines,” Baker said.

Republican challenger and political newcomer Kyle Koehler is currently leading Democratic Commissioner David Hartley by 205 votes. The race will not be decided until 2,351 provisional ballots are counted or after a recount.

If Koehler wins, all three Clark County Board of Commission seats will belong to Republicans for the first time since 1990 when Merle Kearns, Gordon Flax and Roger Baker all held seats.

Republican Party Chairwoman Lynda Smith said the county commission would benefit by having an all GOP board of Koehler, and incumbent Commissioners John Detrick and Rick Lohnes.

“They’re all business people. It will be a great benefit to the county to have their expertise. I think they will be better stewards of taxpayer money,” Smith said.

But Clark County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Rhine says it’s critical that Democrats don’t lose another seat after losing two county offices in 2010.

In November 1990, Baker was defeated by Democratic challenger Roger Tackett. In 2010, Tackett lost the seat to Lohnes and that same year George Sodders, a Democrat, lost to current Auditor Roger Federer, a Republican.

Still, Democrats currently hold the majority of local offices, including the county treasurer, coroner, clerk of courts in both municipal and common pleas courts and the sheriff’s positions. Clark County Common Pleas Judges Richard O’Neill and Joseph Monnin are also both Democrats.

The Springfield mayor is a Democrat as are three of the four other city commission members.

“If you look around (Clark County) still leans toward Democrats … But we can’t take anything for granted and we have to work hard to protect those seats,” Rhine said.

However, national and state representatives whose districts include Clark County are all Republican, including U.S. Rep. John Boehner, state Sen. Chris Widener, and state Reps. Ross McGregor and Bob Hackett.

And in the last three general elections, Clark County has voted in favor of the Republican presidential candidates.

The makeup of Clark County has changed as the population is the lowest it’s been since 1963 at just 137,691. Rhine said the county hasn’t shifted toward Republican rule.

“I think we’re still a strong Democratic County,” Rhine said.

Rob Baker of Wittenberg disagreed.

“The number of independents has dropped significantly and number of Republicans and Democrats has gradually increased, but the distance between them has remained about the same,” said Rob Baker, who is registered to vote as a Democrat. “But Democrats are still have a slight majority.”

Smith said neither Republicans nor Democrats rule Clark County.

She said political races in the area depend heavily on the issues and the strength of the candidates.

“Part of it is because of the candidates we have running are exceptional people. It’s really the candidate, not the party,” Smith said.

Smith said she hasn’t seen a shift in county voters moving toward the Republican party, but thinks the preliminary outcome of the commission race was a vote for a positive candidate and a “responsible government.”

“They want a commission that is going to make wise decisions,” Smith said.

Rob Baker said the commission race likely hinged on the hot button issue involving the county’s decision to lease the Clark County Agricultural Building to Konecranes, which needed the building to develop a global training facility that could result in 25 new jobs.

Lohnes and Detrick approved the lease in a 2-1 vote, with Hartley the lone dissenting vote because it will cost the county between $500,000 to $700,000 in renovations and fixtures to move tenants into the county government building.

Rob Baker also said that Koehler largely outspent Hartley in the race and went door to door campaigning.

“Koehler did a good job of pounding the pavement and getting his name out there,” Rob Baker said. “I can’t say that the county has gone Republican. It’s still a competitive county. I think it just comes down to how much time you put in beating the pavement.”

Rob Baker said an all GOP commission could impact services offered because of the Republican philosophy of limited government and not expanding services.

He said area Democrats may also feel as if their voice is not at the table.

But former County Commissioner Roger Baker said if Koehler wins the seat, an all GOP county commission doesn’t mean Koehler, Detrick and Lohnes will always agree or that their decisions will follow the party line.

“I don’t think there was a strong political bent. There may have been some, but it was not strong. At least that is the way I viewed it. I never saw it that way,” Roger Baker said.

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