Theodore Roosevelt, a renowned political animal and polymath, once said, “I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics.”
It is indeed a complicated place, shaped by its history as America’s first frontier state. Since the country’s founding, Ohio has been settled over the years by various ethnic groups searching for prosperity west of the Appalachian Mountains. Once a bellwether in American politics, Ohio is losing that status as its population grows older, whiter and more culturally conservative. But its patchwork of wildly different regions makes it a fascinating state to watch regardless.
“Ohio is one of those places whose narrative is more often told from the outside rather than from within,” said David Giffels, the author of “Barnstorming Ohio,” a book on the state’s political and cultural geography.
“We are the boring middle of American politics,” Giffels added. “And I do mean that in a loving way.”
Ohio’s major population centers form a diagonal axis that slashes across the state from Cleveland in the northeast through Columbus down to Cincinnati in the southwest, along the I-71 corridor. There are as many as 12 media markets in the state, whose population of 11.8 million people sprawls across nearly 45,000 square miles.
As a result, said Kyle Kondik, an election forecaster and author of a book about Ohio politics, “there’s not really a strong center to the vote in the state.”
Ohio is holding primary elections on Tuesday that will give us the first major electoral test of Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party since he left office. By endorsing JD Vance in the state’s Republican Senate primary, Trump has single-handedly vaulted Mr. Vance, the venture capitalist and celebrity author, to the front of a crowded field.
A forecast for low turnover
But Vance’s victory in the primary is no sure thing. Although the candidates have spent nearly $70 million bludgeoning one another on television, voters don’t seem to be especially motivated by the chance to pick a replacement for Senator Rob Portman, who is retiring. Turnout in the race is expected to be low.
“With Trump not on the nerd, I don’t think this race is top of mind for most voters,” said Thomas Sutton, the director of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University, which conducts polls of Ohio voters.
That could help Matt Dolan, a traditional Republican who is likely to draw support from party regulars and upper-income voters in the suburbs. Under this theory, casual voters who may be swayed by Trump’s late endorsement of Vance are less likely to show up.
Dolan allies suggest, too, that because the other candidates will divide the hard-core Trump vote among themselves, Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, has an opportunity to eke out a plurality of the vote by scooping up more casual Trump fans. They also speculate that Gov. Mike DeWine’s strength in the primary for governor could lift Dolan among rank-and-file Republicans.
Mike Murphy, a former Republican consultant, said that because Dolan hadn’t been the subject of many attack ads, “he’s become the fresh face in the closing moments after the rest have a ton of damage, both self-inflicted and from paid media .”
The five states of Ohio
Most analysts of Ohio divide the state into five regions: Northeast, around Cleveland; Northwest, including Toledo and the prosperous farmlands around it; Central, the booming areas in and around Columbus; Southeast, the Appalachian part of the state; and Southwest, dominated by Cincinnati and its suburbs.
The Northeast is Ohio’s Democratic stronghold, the most populous, most industrialized and most diverse part of the state. But it’s also home to tens of thousands of Republican voters, so the candidates have all campaigned and advertised heavily in the region.
The Southwest, which includes Vance’s hometown, Middletown, is the traditional center of Republican politics in Ohio. More Southern in perspective, it is full of bedrock Republican voters: conventional in their cultural outlook, they tend to favor free enterprise and worry about issues like crime, drugs and immigration. Vance, who now lives in Cincinnati, is holding his election night party in the city.
The Southeast has been a swing area in Ohio politics, though it is also the least diverse at nearly 95 percent white. Hobbled by job losses and buffeted by the forces of globalization and economic modernization, with a lower percentage of people with college degrees, Ohio’s Appalachian region is full of “people who are angry at the world,” said John C. Green, the emeritus director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.
As a result, Green said, the region has a “much higher tolerance for the rough and tumble of politics” — and could gravitate toward Josh Mandel, who has campaigned as much on attitude as he has on any particular conservative ideas. A super PAC backing Mandel has been running ads on rural radio stations in the area attacking Vance as “a fraud.”
In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, the Ohio map divided sharply between John Kasich, who was the sitting governor at the time, and Trump, who would of course go on to win the Republican nomination and the presidency. Kasich won Ohio’s most populous counties on his way to carrying the state, while Trump cleaned up in the Appalachian communities along the Ohio River.
Vance’s balancing act
One question on the minds of many Ohio watchers: How will college-educated Republicans respond to Vance?
Will they flock to the Yale-educated, worldly investor lurking inside the angry MAGA warrior Vance has become? Or will they be repelled by how far right he has moved to court Trump’s base?
Vance’s schedule and ad spending in the last few days of the race show a focus on suburban and small-town areas. Since Saturday, he has visited Circleville, a city south of Columbus; Cuyahoga Falls, a city north of Akron; Westlake, a western suburb of Cleveland; Dublin, a northwestern suburb of Columbus; and Mason, a northeastern suburb of Cincinnati.
A super PAC supporting Vance, Protect American Values, has spent heavily on TV advertisements in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown.
“On the surface, it looks like the campaign is pursuing middle-of-the-road Republican voters,” Green said.
It’s a deceptively conventional strategy that you would hardly expect from the protagonist of “Hillbilly Elegy” — a story of rural communities wracked by poverty, drug addiction and what he called “learned helplessness.” Back in 2016, Vance was urging Americans to seize their own destiny, as he did by transcending his troubled childhood.
“We’re no longer a country that believes in human agency, and as a formerly poor person, I find it incredibly insulting,” he said in one interview.
In this campaign, Vance has courted the support of far-right characters who traffic in conspiracy theories and invective like Steve Bannon and Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. In recent days, he has accused President Biden of deliberately flooding Ohio with fentanyl, a preposterous charge without evidence.
“In a way,” Giffels said, “he’s kind of selling the victimhood he railed against in the book.”
What to read
From Columbus, Ohio, our colleague Trip Gabriel reports on what’s next for Josh Mandel, a Republican whose Senate campaign has been defined by his support of Donald Trump, now that Trump has endorsed someone else.
A second woman has publicly accused Charles Herbster, a Republican candidate for governor in Nebraska who has Trump’s backing, of groping her.
Even as Biden enjoyed high approval ratings early in his presidency, his lead pollster warned that immigration and inflation could cost him support.
With six months until the midterms, Democrats are deeply divided over how to connect with voters and brighten the party’s prospects, Katie Glueck reports.
how they run
Manchin wades into a GOP primary in West Virginia
It’s not often that you see a Democrat endorse a Republican candidate. But the usual political bets are off in West Virginia.
Republicans hold all three of the state’s House seats. But after West Virginia lost a district in the once-a-decade reapportionment process, there’s room for only two of them in the next Congress. That has left two Republican congressmen, Alex Mooney and David McKinley, fighting for the new Second District.
Over the weekend, Senator Joe Manchin, the nation’s most famous right-leaning Democrat, announced in an ad that he was supporting McKinley, a longtime West Virginia politician and engineer by trade who was first elected to Congress in 2010. The primary is May 10 .
The endorsement adds another layer to an incumbent-on-incumbent race that has already become a proxy war of sorts. Donald Trump endorsed Mooney, while his former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, endorsed McKinley. Manchin joins Gov. Jim Justice — a Republican who left the Democratic Party after Trump was elected — in endorsing McKinley. Mooney, notably, is seen as a potential Senate challenger to Manchin in 2024.
Mooney has a similar summary to McKinley’s, although across state lines. He spent a decade in Maryland’s Legislature before leading its state Republican Party, history that has provided McKinley with alliterative fodder in his attack ads against “Maryland Mooney.”
Both men are campaigning on typical Republican talking points, like immigration and gun rights. But they’ve dedicated most of their television ads to attacking each other, trading accusations of working with Democrats and betraying Trump.
Perhaps twisting the knife for his Democratic critics, Manchin praised McKinley in his ad for rejecting what was once the centerpiece of President Biden’s social policy agenda — an agenda, of course, that was doomed in part by Manchin’s opposition.
“For Alex Mooney and his out-of-state supporters to suggest David McKinley supported Build Back Better is an outright lie,” Manchin says to the camera.
At the same time, Manchin is supporting one of the few Republicans who supported the Biden administration’s signature legislative achievement. McKinley was one of just a dozen Republicans who voted for Biden’s infrastructure legislation last year.
— Blake & Leah
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