In swing-state Ohio, Democrats still hunt for candidates

Since 1990, the party has struggled to win statewide.

Around the bar, at the breakfast table, and in the anterooms of the Embassy Suites Airport, headquarters hotel for the Ohio delegation to the Democratic National Convention, discussions about the 2018 statewide elections are almost as urgent as the mission to elect Hillary Clinton president.

Despite Ohio’s vaunted reputation for political evenness, Democrats have been on the outside looking in at the five statewide offices — governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer — for the better part three decades.

Between 1990 and 2014, Republicans won 28 of 36 races for those offices, or nearly 78 percent. After a brief rebound led by former Gov. Ted Strickland in 2006, when Democrats won four of the five offices, Republicans swept all of them in 2010 and 2014.

After the 2010 election, Republicans used their power to gerrymander the state’s legislative districts, building lopsided majorities in the House and Senate, effectively decimating the Democrats’ bench.

“The truth is, redistricting and the calamity of 2010 really did take out a lot of talented Democrats,” said David Pepper, who in 2015 took over as chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, tasked with rebuilding it.

“When you’ve got Republicans in control of everything, that is not an atmosphere conducive to growing candidates — there is no incubator,” said Jim Underwood, an alternate delegate from Columbus and former Statehouse bureau chief for The Plain Dealer.

Another problem for Democrats is the historically low turnout in gubernatorial election years, usually at least 1.5 million fewer voters than in presidential elections. For instance, in the 2014 gubernatorial race Ohio recorded little more than 3.1 million votes, compared to 5.6 million in the 2012 presidential race.

When Democratic voters are energized their candidates usually win, contended Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, who said he has no plans to run statewide in 2018.

“The big challenge we have is the drop off between presidential years and gubernatorial years — how do we maintain our strength in organizing and turnout in the municipal and gubernatorial election years,” Ginther said.

Still, Pepper is optimistic about 2018 and the party’s farm team, even though it will be pitted against a seasoned slate of current Republican officeholders. The Democratic pipeline, he said, begins with the big-city mayors and council members and urban county commissioners.

“Actually, we have a very strong bench,” Pepper said, even though there is no proven marquee statewide player on it.

A Columbus Dispatch survey of Ohio delegates before the convention revealed no clear choice for governor among the 48 respondents. Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since 2012 and a former Ohio attorney general and treasurer, received the most mentions.

Also viewed as gubernatorial timber by the Ohio delegates are U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Copley, and former state Rep. Connie Pillich of Montgomery, the party’s 2014 candidate for state treasurer. So far, none has indicated an intention to run for statewide office.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has bee mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, but he also said he isn’t planning to run.

The task of becoming known and raising the money to run statewide means a 2018 Democratic ticket will have to take shape soon: “You can’t run a statewide campaign unless you are starting early next year,” Pepper said.

Around the Ohio Democrats’ hotel here, some potential candidates were busy schmoozing with delegates, building relationships for 2018.

Former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach, 50, whose purview over the last eight years spanned northern Ohio, said, “I am seriously considering the job of attorney general for 2018.”

State Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Kent, an attorney who has expertise in election-law, also worked the delegates, saying she was “very honored by those rumors” that she will run for secretary of state, without committing to do so.

State Rep. David Leland of Columbus sponsored the delegation breakfast Monday and acknowledged that he is considering a 2018 bid for a yet-to-be-determine statewide office.

“If you believe in government to be an agent of positive change, then you have to get into the game,” Leland said.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley acknowledged the party has work to do to build up a bench that can compete in statewide races. But, she said, “I will continue to work to build and support local Democratic officials. These folks are the future of our party.”