Have Ohio Democrats Learned Anything About the Working Class?

Cincinnati Enquirer, Mike Nyerges

In presidential elections, Ohio has long been a swing state. Its voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, then swung right in 2016 to support Donald Trump. On the state level, however, Republicans have dominated for the past two decades. Only partly due to gerrymandering, they have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats hold only nine of the 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and only a third of the 99 seats in the Ohio House. Republicans have also held the governorship for all but four years since 1990. Progressive U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, now seeking his third term, remains the only Democratic candidate to consistently win statewide elections.

Why has the Democratic Party lost so much ground in Ohio? To a large extent, it’s because they have lost the support of white working-class voters.

As in other Rust Belt states, a majority of Ohio voters are white people without college degrees. Fully 55 percent of the state’s voters belong to this demographic, while only 31 percent are white and college educated. In the polling booth, the gap between those with and without higher education has steadily increased, according to pollster Ruy Texiera. To win in Ohio, he argues, Democrats must “find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.”

After two decades of losses, you might think that the Ohio Democratic Party would have figured that out. But for the most part, it has not. Instead, the current crop of Democratic candidates has focused on critiques of Trump, Kasich, and the Ohio legislature. They’ve raised concerns about gerrymandering and voter suppression, the opioid crisis, Ohio’s pitiful record on women’s issues, and the almost uniformly bad performance of for-profit charter schools. Valid concerns all, but the Democrats running for office in 2018 have offered almost nothing in the way of concrete economic platforms.

The website of gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, for instance, features only biographies of him and running mate Betty Sutton and a button to donate. It’s not as if he hasn’t had time to develop a coherent policy agenda, since he has been planning to run for governor for more than a year. Nor does the website identify any specific plans for addressing Sutton’s “kitchen table issues”: jobs and wages, education, healthcare, and a secure retirement. Cordray has raised considerable money, but he can’t count on his personal story to defeat primary opponents like Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman and mayor of Cleveland.

Kucinich and Senator Sherrod Brown are the most notable exceptions to this pattern. Kucinich’s website provides the most concrete – and progressive — platform in the Democrats’ gubernatorial field. Similarly, Brown’s 77-page white paper, Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America, lays out a comprehensive and concrete program to raise worker wages and benefits, give more workers voice and power at work, improve retirement savings, and encourage workforce investments.  That he released his plan in March 2017, on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, shows that he understands that the Democratic Party needs more concrete economic programs squarely aimed at improving the economic lives of working people.  

What makes Brown a strong candidate is that he doesn’t just talk about protecting good jobs. He has long been on the front lines fighting plant shutdowns and outsourcing and leading Congressional battles over unfair trade and banking laws. On trade, he has crossed party lines to work closely with his fellow Ohio senator, Rob Portman. His regular meetings in all 88 Ohio counties and direct connections with working people have made him even more credible.

Candidates could also find a good model in the strategies recommended by Policy Matters Ohio, a non-partisan think tank. Its recent white paper, “A New Way Forward,” outlines “10 ways to support Ohio’s working people,” such as  protecting the right to organize, increasing the minimum wage, protecting against wage theft, fixing unemployment and workers’ compensation,  and improvements in work scheduling and paid leaves. Like Brown’s and Kucinich’s programs, PMO’s plan clearly aims to redress the economic losses sustained by Ohio workers.

PMO Executive Director Amy Hanauer says the organization has met with most of the gubernatorial statewide candidates. So far, only Kucinich is focusing on the group’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, neither the Ohio Democratic Party nor the other statewide candidates have shown any indication of embracing such strategies. An argument can be made for avoiding issues that could cost the party votes within the white working class, such as gun control. No plausible argument can be made, however, to downplay economic concerns. But even progressive candidates like Kathleen Clyde are largely mute on the state’s economic troubles. Clyde is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Secretary of State. She has taken her cue from state Democratic leaders and is pursuing a narrower campaign strategy focused on “bringing real accountability and transparency to my office and securing and modernizing our elections.” While voter suppression has been a real problem in Ohio, aimed primarily at voters of color (most of whom are also working class), Clyde has yet to connect the economic concerns of disenfranchised working-class voters with voting rights or access.

Why haven’t Ohio Democrats come out swinging with a populist campaign that could appeal to the working class? First, the Party’s leadership is too conservative to mount a persuasive populist campaign. The ODP is also inbred, relying on a relatively small circle of consultants who have been responsible for past defeats. Furthermore, Richard Cordray has chosen to rely on the same strategic campaign communication specialists that mainstream Democrats have typically hired.

The ODP is controlled by David Pepper, who chairs the state party. Pepper is the son of the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, and his close circle includes downstate lobbyists and operatives. This group has shown no affinity for working-class voters or their concerns. After the disastrous 2014 election, in which Democrats lost seats statewide and Kasich was re-elected, the ODP rejected Brown’s suggestions for changes in the Party as well as his choice for state chair. Since then, Brown and the Party have had an uneasy and transactional relationship. Sources close to Brown’s campaign estimate that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the contributions to the state party are tied directly to Brown’s involvement. At the same time, Brown needs the party to help get out the vote.

Former Ohio Attorney General, Marc Dann says Ohio voters reward strong convictions. Dann won the biggest political upset in recent Ohio political history when he defeated Republican stalwart Betty Montgomery for Attorney General in 2006. In an interview, Dann said that successful Democratic candidates like onetime Governor Richard Celeste and former Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn all demonstrated a strong commitment to their political views. And, says Dann, they won elections, even though Ohio’s slightly more Republican electorate didn’t always share their views, because they stood by their beliefs.

Today’s ODP has not nurtured strong candidates like these. Rather, Dann believes, the Party has encouraged more moderate, Republican-lite candidates and worked hard to defeat their more progressive opponents in primaries. “Straddling the middle is exactly the right strategy for Republicans,” Dann says, “but is a losing strategy for Democrats.”

Brown understands that, which is why he’s been the party’s only consistently successful statewide candidate over the past two decades. If Ohio Democrats would learn from his example and understand the appeal of the working-class economics like Brown, Kucinich, and organizations like PMO, they just might break the Republicans’ stranglehold on the state.

John Russo

This commentary also appeared on the American Prospect blog.

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