By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal staff writer
While the presidential campaign tightens in Ohio, the same cannot be said for its federal and state races.
Most, including local races for the Ohio legislature and U.S. Congress, were decided in March. Incumbent candidates who survived the primary (all did in Summit County) can comfortably assume victory in November.
Even the most optimistic concede that upsets are unlikely.
That’s because Ohio’s congressional and Statehouse districts are notoriously noncompetitive. For that, there is bipartisan agreement and irrefutable proof.
Among the five congressional districts that crisscross Summit, Stark, Medina, Portage and Wayne counties, only once in this millennium has a race been decided by single digits.
Landslides are the more likely outcome. Between 2002 and 2014, there have been 35 contests in Ohio’s 7th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 16th congressional districts; and the winner has taken more than 60 percent of the vote 77 percent of the time.
Regardless of the year or the race, the odds have consistently favored the party already in power. This year promises more of the same. The U.S. Senate race was thought to be the exception, but incumbent Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, has built a mountainous lead over Ted Strickland, a former Democratic governor. Portman’s sprawling volunteer army has reached 5 million voters. His record-breaking fundraising began shortly after he took office in 2010 and piled on $20 million in the past two years. And an influx of ads financed by outside groups have spent 2-1 in favor of Portman, helping to push the race beyond the reach of Strickland and Democrats, who now are looking elsewhere to flip the U.S. Senate.
Portman has led by as much as 16, 17 or 18 points in numerous polls. That’s par for the course in Ohio’s long tradition of incumbent lawmakers easily dispatching the other major party in general elections.
And while politicians tend to agree on the lopsidedness of Ohio’s races, the reasons candidates give for why are notably partisan.
Major party issue
In a survey of local candidates for the Ohio House and Senate and U.S. Congress, the Beacon Journal noted the lack of competitive races and asked: “Why do you think that is, and what impact might it have on democracy and how government functions? Is this a problem and, if so, how do we fix it?”
Republicans offered myriad reasons — low voter turnout, blacks controlling urban politics, hopelessness, and the self-sorting of conservatives and liberals into communities with like-minded neighbors.
Only one Republican, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, joined every single Democratic and independent candidate in blaming gerrymandering — the partisan process of mapping out voting districts to maximize and guarantee single-party control.
“While I personally campaigned hard to earn and preserve the opportunity to represent the people of the 16th District in recent elections, it’s a sad reality that most other congressional districts in America have been so badly gerrymandered that voters are denied the opportunity to ever vote in competitive congressional races,” Renacci said.
With computer precision, Republicans who have controlled Columbus at the end of the past two decades have reshaped district maps to dominate future elections. Democrats in Illinois and elsewhere also are guilty of the political ploy.
Keith Mundy, a Sen. Bernie Sanders delegate who is challenging Renacci, added campaign finance and lobbying to the list of reasons several Democrats gave for deep polarization in government.
“We need to take money out of our elections and end the ‘buying’ of government,” Mundy said.
Renacci said that the “safe districts” created by gerrymandering allow ideologues from the far right or left to pick off more centrist candidate in primaries.
“One of the most problematic impacts of partisan gerrymandering across the country has been increased gridlock and polarization in a Congress primarily occupied by representatives of solidly Democratic or solidly Republican districts who have little incentive to find common ground,” Renacci said.
“Gerrymandering is a state law issue — and should be addressed in Columbus,” said Michael Wager, a Democrat and the only candidate to include gerrymandering among Ohio’s most pressing issues. Wager is running against U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce and write-in candidate Andrew Jarvi of the Green Party. Joyce, the Republican incumbent, said that being the “only person” representing a competitive congressional district in Ohio “forces you to evaluate each piece of legislation and not just answer to the fringes of the parties.”
In 2015, a resounding 71 percent of Ohioans approved a ballot initiate to encourage bipartisanship in redistricting. Republican leadership in Columbus, however, has threatened to postpone the plan while sidelining similar reform for how Ohio draws its congressional districts.
“This problem is caused by racial partisan divides,” Beverly Goldstein, a retired audiologist from Beachwood, said of the lack of competition.
Goldstein is running against U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, whose district was drawn to capture Clevelanders and the western half of Akron. Residents in the 11th heavily lean to the left and are 60 percent minority compared with 18 percent statewide, 38 percent in Akron and 63 percent in Cleveland. Eastern Akron belongs to a district that squeezes through Portage County to connect with Warren and Youngstown.
Giving the invocation at a Donald Trump rally in Cleveland on Oct. 22, Goldstein recited dire statistics facing the 11th District’s people of color — from high unemployment to low life expectancy.
“Democrat, black governments control our largest cities,” Goldstein said in her survey response. “ ... Most black people reflexively vote Democrat, though Democrats never fix their problems. Most white Republican candidates have given up campaigning in the inner cities, so even those black voters who would like an alternative candidate who would address their problems have no option.”
Pick a reason
Other Republicans opined on the lack of competition in Ohio races.
“We live in a time where so many have given up hope because the people they’ve elected have time and again failed them,” said Republican Jonathan Schulz, a Tallmadge businessman seeking Tom Sawyer’s Senate seat. Schulz is facing ex-state Rep. Vernon Sykes, who championed redistricting reform with local Republicans only to see the plan squashed by GOP leadership in Columbus.
State Rep. Kristina Roegner, who considers her district among the most competitive, is facing a strong opponent in Casey Weinstein, who like Roegner before him is a council member from Hudson. Roegner acknowledged the polarizing effects of unbalanced districts but did not blame politicking.
“Based on demographics [rural vs. urban], some districts favor one political party over another,” said Roegner.
Anthony DeVitis, another Republican in the Ohio House, laid the blame on apathetic voters.
“Noncompetitive races are the result of many factors, one being the lack of voter turnout,” said DeVitis, who hopes that easier and more transparent voter registration will boost participation.
DeVitis’ challenger, Mogadore Councilman Bobby McDowall, said politically distorted districts make legislators “unreasonable and unresponsive” to their constituents. He advocates for Ohio to follow Iowa and California in tackling congressional redistricting reform, before the next census cements maps for another decade.
“We must reform the way we draw our congressional districts before the 2020 census,” McDowall said, “or Ohioans will be forced to spend another decade with extreme members of Congress who don’t represent the values of ordinary voters.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.