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Presidential Contest, Suburb Shifts Are Major Factors In Ohio Legislature Races

Ohio Statehouse
Dan Konik
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Ohio Statehouse

As always, Ohio's fall ballot features the presidential and Congressional races at the top, with contests for state legislature down below. The entire Ohio House and half the Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans, are up this year.

And with the presidential races closer than anticipated, 2020 is proving to be a challenging time to run in those down-ballot contests.

Dave Greenspan has been in elective office for decades, in both his home state of Georgia and in Ohio. For the last four years, he’s been a Republican state representative from Westlake, west of Cleveland.

“This is probably the most divisive political environment that I’ve ever seen," Greenspan says.

Greenspan is in a competitive race with Democrat Monique Smith. Mailers have tied Greenspan to the $60 million federal corruption scandal around House Bill 6, last year's nuclear bailout law. Greenspan voted against that and has co-sponsored two efforts to repeal HB6.

Some other Republicans are getting the same treatment, but they're not the only ones.

Republicans lost six House seats to Democrats in 2018, and they’re now targeting the Democrats who won them, including Mary Lightbody of Westerville. She beat a candidate who’d been backed by Republican Larry Householder, the politician at the center of the racketeering allegations, in his fight to become Speaker.

Lightbody is now running against Republican Meredith Freedhoff.

“There’s other things that we could and should be talking about rather than this rather vicious attack ads that aren’t based in truth," Lightbody says.

And it’s not just incumbents: Challengers who haven’t even served in the legislature are also being attacked in ads and mailers.

Both Greenspan and Lightbody are in Ohio’s suburban districts. That’s where the heart of the battle for the Statehouse is, says David Cohen of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

“The suburbs in general, I think are really kind of it's really ground zero, I think, for this particular election and elections going forward in the near term, because in the suburbs to be very friendly territory for Republicans," Cohen says. "But that is that is changing. And some suburbs are becoming very blue and others are very much a purple area that’s a swing area.”

In 2018, while Republicans won the offices of governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer, Democrats gained a total of five House seats. Meanwhile, there was one Republican flip from blue to red. The GOP also took state Senate seat in the Youngstown area that had previously been Democratic.

Former Ohio Democratic Party chair Chris Redfern is now working on some state House races, but he’s feeling confident.

“We're going to pick up five to seven seats in the state House, probably two seats in the state Senate, and then one to two seats in the Congress," Redfern predicted.

But the majority in either statehouse chamber is likely not in question. Republicans hold 61 of 99 House seats, so Democrats would have to add 12 new seats to control the House.

The Senate is dominated more than 2-to-1 by the GOP, which has controlled that chamber since 1985. The two Democratic Senators on the ballot would have to win, and Democrats would have to win eight more seats to take over the Senate.

Nick Everhart is a longtime Republican consultant working with former and current candidates. But he says the Democrats have a reason for optimism this year.

“This is just a much more perilous political environment nationally and in Ohio for Republicans," Everhart says. "And you know that while most of the attention is kind of focused on the presidential, the truth is the impact that presidential dynamics having down-ballot is pretty significant right now."

The nuclear bailout law scandal involving Householder, who was ousted as Speaker but is running for reelection this year, is getting some play but not a lot. In 2018, the payday lending scandal that led to the resignation of Republican former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger wasn’t a big campaign talking point, either.

Everhart says it may not be a missed opportunity.

“The question is, is he really defined enough to use sort of a guilt by association villain? And I think I think, frankly, they must have decided that he's not or that they just had better attacks to use," Everhart said.

Redfern says Democrats are taking a simple approach.

“Who's crazier and who's more corrupt, Donald Trump or Larry Householder?" Redfern says. "Now, if you live in Zanesville or maybe Columbus, you know the name Householder. But if you live in Tiffin or Cleveland or Toledo, you don't know Householder, you know Trump and you know, he's crazy. And we don't have to get 75% percent of the vote. You have to get 51% of the vote."

This election will still be mostly determined by the boundaries of House and Senate districts, which were drawn Republican-dominated apportionment board – and gerrymandered to favor GOP candidates. So even after being indicted on federal racketeering charges, Householder will likely win re-election to his seat in his bright red district, although there are six write-in candidates in his race.

Some districts are so secure for the parties that 19 of 99 House races have only one major party candidate, though some are facing write-in opponents.

In the Senate, all 16 races have both Republican and Democratic candidates. But four of the five candidates for open seats in the Senate are current Republican state representatives hoping to move to the other chamber.