Democrats are looking to 2020 with optimism. Party leaders say they are seeing signs that areas of Ohio that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and Republican statewide leaders in 2018 are ready to vote for Democrats in 2020. And they say they have a plan to make that happen.
It was a freezing cold day in Clintonville, a Columbus suburb, on December 17, 2019. It was the evening before the U.S. House voted to impeach President Trump. Some 200 people gathered, holding signs, many of which were homemade. They said they wanted to send their message to congress. Connie Spencer, Columbus, held a sign urging motorists to "Honk to Impeach."
"I was a Republican my entire life. I quit the Republican party in 2016. I was done with Donald Trump when he made fun of the disabled reporter in the audience. When that happened, I knew that somebody like that could not be president and represent all of the people. You need to respect and love everyone here. Everything, from his immigration to taxes to anything he does, he’s not looking out for the people. He’s looking out for himself," Spencer said.
Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper said he's seeing former Republicans who are fed up with Republican President Trump right now, especially in suburbs of Ohio’s larger cities.
“These suburbs are now the largest voting block in Ohio. They are the quickest growing voting block and they are coming our direction," Pepper said.
While Ohio has been solidly red for the last few election cycles, Delaware County is one place where the party thinks that shift to blue is happening. The county has been a Republican stronghold and has the highest incomes and property values statewide. Delaware County Democratic Party Chair Peg Watkins said, in the most recent election, Democrats saw some gains in key local races.
“ I think it’s exciting. I think we’ve got some new opportunities coming our way and for the first time in a long time, we’ve got some elected officials who are Democrats. We’ve got Heather Karr, who was elected the top vote getter on the Powell City Council," Watkins said.
In a six-person race, Karr topped the field, garnering 23% of the vote.
"I believe that southern Delaware County is changing. I think the political landscape is changing here but I also think, because of our national politics, people are looking at politics, especially local politics, a lot differently. I think they are looking for someone who appears to be moderate who looks like they can get along with people," Karr said.
Karr said she knows some Republicans voted for her because they are personal friends and acquaintances. And there’s one group, in particular, she thinks her candidacy resonated with……women.
"I’ve talked to several women who have basically said, ‘I can’t even imagine voting for a man right now.” You know a woman is going to come in and at least they are going to know how to talk to people and not insult someone in casual conversation," Karr said.
Democrats say President Trump turns off women, moderate Republicans and independents with his campaign rhetoric and his tweets. Pepper says the party hopes to parlay that disdain into votes for its candidates.
“In some states, some people say ‘Aw, anybody who voted for Trump won’t vote for a Democrat. But in Ohio, we know that’s not true. People who voted for Trump also voted for Obama. And they voted for Sherrod Brown," Pepper said.
Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator won re-election in 2018 with 53% of the vote against Jim Renacci, who aligned himself with and got support from Trump. While some had hoped for a stronger showing for the candidate considered the most popular Democrat in Ohio, Sherrod Brown won several counties that Trump had taken in 2016. Brown said he thinks he appeals to workers.
“You run a campaign thinking about workers through the eyes of workers. You plan to govern the same way come 2021," Brown said.
The strategy of Democrats in 2020 is pretty simple: Focus on issues that matter to workers and speak to those disaffected suburban voters.
"If we can continue to see the shift and build on it, and it’s largely women voters, and we narrow our losses in the more rural parts of the state where Republicans obviously do well," Pepper said.
Democrats will be focusing on the lighter red areas of the state. And he said they won’t be talking about the impeachment much.
“I don’t think that’s the campaign message next year. I think it’s the duty of being in office right now that it is pursued," Pepper said.
Instead, Democrats plan to reach out to the suburban voters who are turned off by Trump’s messages. And they’ll focus on Northeast Ohio where Trump won votes by focusing on manufacturing, telling workers in the Mahoning Valley they shouldn’t sell their homes because their jobs at the GM plant would stay. This year the plant closed and 4,500 jobs were lost, though recently GM and a South Korean company announced plans to make electric vehicle batteries there, employing 1,100 people.
Tom Suddes, a veteran journalist who has seen changes in Ohio’s voting patterns during the past three decades, said that strategy could work for Democrats, especially if they pick a moderate presidential candidate.
“One of the Democrats who did best in the state is Jimmy Carter in 1976 because he carried a number of Appalachian counties and there were a fair number of religious people there. They saw him as a person who had some values and they shared a cultural commonality. I think that’s probably going to be the case again if Democrats are going to do well in the state," Suddes said.
Democrats know getting that message of shared values out to voters will be key.
“Trump has taken the Republican party very far away from its core values. And when I say that, I’m also talking about American values because I believe the Democratic party represents the best of American values. We put people first. People above monied interests," Watkins said.
To win in 2020, Democrats hope their message will do more than capture the anti-Trump vote. They want to focus on what they call “kitchen table issues” instead of merely throwing red meat to their base. They said that strategy has worked in Democratic wins in Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.