COLUMBUS: To the victors go the spoils?
That’s the rule in war and sports but, unfortunately for the Democrats, not in Ohio politics.
Way back in November — that seems like an eternity ago— Ohio Democrats won big. They decisively carried the state for President Barack Obama and re-elected U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the first time that’s happened for a Democratic senator since the Glenn-Metzenbaum glory days.
With the exception of Sen. Brown, who’s in the majority in Washington, all the Democrats got in the New Year were the cheap seats. They’re on the outside looking in.
Gerrymandering is part of the problem.
Republicans controlled redistricting, and the politically lopsided districts they created paid off big. Republicans won 12 of 16 Ohio U.S. House seats. The GOP controls the Ohio House, 60-39 and the state Senate, 23-10. Those whopping majorities mean Republicans don’t need Democratic help even in the unlikely chance that they want to override a veto from Republican Gov. John Kasich.
It takes the same supermajority in the legislature — 60 in the House and 20 in the Senate — to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot as it does to override a veto, so Republicans don’t need Democratic help in that department, either.
Democrats have more to worry about than gerrymandering.
There’s another statewide election in 2014, and the cupboard is nearly bare of battle-tested Democrats to take on the all-Republican slate of incumbents.
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald appears to be the early favorite to challenge Kasich. Other possible candidates for governor include U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan from the Youngstown area, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, now head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Copley Township.
Whoever the candidate turns out to be, he or she will be fighting history. Democrats haven’t beaten an incumbent Republican governor since 1958.
In contrast, Republicans have given Democratic incumbents the boot three times since then. Kasich was the most recent winner, ousting Ted Strickland in 2010.
Jim Rhodes did it twice. He beat incumbent Mike DiSalle, a former Toledo mayor, in 1962 and incumbent John J. Gilligan in 1974.
The Democrat who came closest to knocking out a Republican was Dick Celeste in 1978, when Celeste lost to Rhodes in a squeaker, 49.3 percent to 47.6 percent.
Unlike this year’s crop of Democratic possibilities, Celeste got in the race early. That’s understating things. He was probably at least thinking about a run for governor before he won the first of his two terms in the Ohio House in 1970.
In 1974, the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately. That year Rhodes won the governor’s office and Celeste was elected lieutenant governor. Rhodes didn’t give Celeste much to do as lieutenant governor, which was OK with Celeste since he began campaigning for governor right away.
Celeste, like Rhodes, had a burning desire to be governor and charisma to go along with it. So far the flame is not exactly burning white hot among the 2014 Democratic hopefuls.
The Democrats’ best hope next year could be the Republicans.
The politically lopsided legislative districts they’ve created could cause them to believe that most Ohioans agree with a far-right agenda and overreach. Republican legislators and Kasich could pass the “heartbeat” bill, which would ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected. Outgoing Senate President Tom Niehaus, R-New Richmond, stopped the bill last year after it passed the House, but new Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, might not put on the brakes. That would add fuel to the Democrats’charge that Kasich and his legislative allies are anti-woman.
Ohio Republicans also could take a cue from their neighbors in Michigan and support efforts to make Ohio a “right-to-work” state. That Republican strategy worked for Democrats the last time they defeated a Republican governor.
Back in 1958 Republicans were riding about as high as they are today. GOP Gov. Billy O’Neill and his allies put a right-to-work proposal on that year’s ballot. That woke up the unions and the Democrats who defeated the issue and nearly every Republican.
DiSalle defeated O’Neill and became the first governor elected to a four-year term, before Rhodes sent him packing in 1962.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.