Trying To Predict If 2018 Will Be A Red Or Blue Year In Ohio Nearly Impossible

Apr 23, 2017

"Leans Republican."

That's the category where Ohio's already-churning 2018 gubernatorial race  is placed by Sabato's Crystal Ball, a highly-respected weekly politics newsletter published by director Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"At this early point, 'Leans Republican' seems appropriate, though the environment will obviously matter,'' the Crystal Ball said in its Thursday edition, an initial rating of the 38 gubernatorial races being held this year and next.

And what environment will that be?

Well, it could be any number of things. Some of them favorable to Republicans running for statewide office in 2018; others favorable to Democrats. All of them are about either President Donald Trump, Ohio's economy a year from now, or both.

Kyle Kondik
Credit Provided, University of Virginia Center for Politics

"If Trump is doing better in terms of his approval rating; and there is nothing bad going on in Ohio for Republicans, you would have to give the Republicans the advantage,'' said Kyle Kondik, a native Ohioan who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

"You could also have a situation where there is increased Democratic activity, with Trump not being particularly popular,'' Kondik said. "Or if the economy is bad, that could end up helping the Democrats."

One thing is fairly certain: Both the Ohio Republican Party and the Ohio Democratic Party are likely to have primary contests in the race to replace Republican incumbent John Kasich, who can't run for re-election because of Ohio's term limits law.

The Republicans are Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator;  U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, Mary Taylor, Kasich's lieutenant governor; and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

On the Democratic side, the announced candidates are former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery, who ran for state treasurer in 2014 and lost; State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, who just stepped down as Ohio Senate minority leader; and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Copley, who headed the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation under the Obama administration.

The Democratic field is likely to grow.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who is running for re-election without opposition this year, is almost certainly going to enter the race on the Democratic side. If Trump ends up firing former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Cordray could return to Ohio and run for governor.

David Pepper, the former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner who chairs the Ohio Democratic Party, is not convinced that the Republican field is going to have much appeal to Ohio voters who he says are "hungry for a change."

The Crystal Ball says Ohio's race to replace Kasich "looks to be the busiest gubernatorial contest so far." It goes on to say that the Ohio GOP "has a strong bench and it shows."

The assertion that the Ohio GOP has a strong field of candidates "is all nonsense,'' Pepper said. "The only bench they have is DeWine." And a candidate for governor such as DeWine has decades in public office and "can't run as a credible candidate for change,'' Pepper said. "He represents the status quo." 

Mark Weaver, a veteran Republican campaign strategist, was told of Pepper's comments and used the example of the Harlem Globetrotters, the basketball entertainers, who, for many decades, have been defeating their "opposition," the Washington Generals over and over again. 

"It sounds to me like the coach of the Washington Generals disputing that the Globetrotters have some good shooters,'' Weaver said.

Name identification, a high favorable rating and the ability to raise large amounts of money are what counts in politics, Weaver said.

"All of the Republicans are ahead of the Democrats on all of those factors,'' Weaver said.  

This year's mayoral and city council elections around the state may be a good indicator of whether the Democrats will have a good year in 2018, Weaver said.

"If they turn out in big numbers, then maybe they will do OK,'' Weaver said. "But if the Democrats are too busy updating their Netflix queues to go out to vote, it doesn't bode well for them in 2018."

Pepper said that he is convinced that whoever the Democratic candidate for governor is, he or she – along with Sen. Sherrod Brown, who will be in a tough re-election battle – will be able to fire up the Democratic base enough to make it a good year for Democrats.

And, Pepper said, the Democratic candidates will be making a point of trying to win back voters who have voted with them in the past but who abandoned the party last year, wooed by Trump's populist message and promise to restore jobs that have gone away.

"They will hear a strong message from our candidates,'' Pepper said.

The 2018 election for statewide offices comes after two straight elections – 2010 and 2014 – in which the Republican ran the table on the Democrats when it came to the state's constitutional offices.

To reverse that, Kondik said, the Democrats will have to do well in areas of the state where Trump was strong in 2016 – and repeat their success last year in Hamilton County.

The Democrats, Kondik said, "have to win in Montgomery County, Mahoning County, southeast Ohio, and in Hamilton County."

"Things are not totally bleak for the Democrats in 2018,'' Kondik said. "Or it could be a tough year; and the Republicans could end up in total control and Ohio would have to be considered a red state.

"It all depends,'' Kondik said. "on what the political atmosphere is like in Ohio a year from now. And no one can predict that."