Ohio House Remains a Toss-Up

Democrats had a big night in Ohio two years ago, capturing the governorship and three of the other four statewide offices. But they fell short ...
by | September 30, 2008

Sslesnick_2 Democrats had a big night in Ohio two years ago, capturing the governorship and three of the other four statewide offices. But they fell short in the legislature, in large part due to a strong Republican gerrymander.

The Ohio House was just about the only GOP-controlled House in the Midwest that stayed in Republican hands after votes were counted in 2006. (The Wisconsin Assembly also stayed Republican, while its Senate flipped.)* Ohio Democrats gained five seats, but remain four seats short of control. Their chances of getting there this year appear to be about 50-50.

The consensus seems to be that Democrats should gain seats. Despite the strong Republican map, Democrats head toward Election Day with more pickup opportunities -- particularly in suburban Franklin County, outside Columbus, and in the southeastern part of the state -- than the GOP.

Many Republican districts are in play because of term limits. Twenty GOP seats are vacant due to term limits, compared to six on the Democratic side.

But whether Democrats gain the majority or fall one or two seats short, it's clear that the House majority will be a slender one. That itself may represent the biggest change to come out of this year's elections.

The Ohio House has always been a chamber where interest groups could turn to leadership to get their bills moving and be confident that the majority caucus would come through with enough votes.

If there's only a one- or two-seat majority either way, some lobbyists are already preparing for a world where more members turn out to be free agents on any given issue. It's going to be an unpredictable legislature.

Hovering over all the competitive races, of course, is the question of how the presidential race will go in the state. Ohio probably won't play the decisive role that it had in 2004. Nonetheless, it's going to be among the closest-fought states. Some are predicting that Barack Obama's turnout efforts may carry down-ballot Democrats to victory, even if he falls short himself, due to his race.

Paul Beck, an Ohio State political scientist, says that Ohio has mainly proven resistant to the tide that has lifted Obama's polling numbers in neighboring states amidst the Wall Street crisis. "There is resistance among some working class Democrats, who probably have voted Republican at times in the past, to vote for an African American candidate."

Nonetheless, he thinks that Obama's ground game should help other Democrats. "I'm not a strong believer in coattails, but there could be coattails in terms of turnout," Beck says.

Voters in Ohio are as disenchanted with President Bush as other Americans, but they don't appear to have the same anti-GOP fervor at the state level that they showed in 2006. After all, Republicans were almost wiped out from statewide offices.

That election left the GOP not only beaten, but bitter primaries deprived the party of its bench strength. Republicans had difficulty even fielding a candidate for this year's special election for state attorney general, to replace disgraced Democrat Marc Dann, who resigned following a sex scandal.

Still, the Ohio GOP, for years one of the strongest state parties -- and certainly far stronger than the state Democrats -- remains a formidable organization, one likely to raise more money for its House candidates this year than the Democrats will muster.

And the GOP has one other advantage in the state, suggests Hiram College political scientist Jason Johnson. Because of the state's "desiccated" population, there are fewer 18- to 29-year-olds -- the group breaking most strongly to Obama and Democrats in general this year -- than in other states experiencing strong in-migration.

"You don't have the new, galvanized voting base that leads to massive change in the state House," Johnson says. "To see a change in the state House, you're banking on older people who are set in their ways changing their minds when they go into the polls."

*Corrected thanks to a reader who reminded me about Wisconsin


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