William Hershey

COLUMBUS: The table is set for Ohio’s May 6 statewide primaries and the menus are familiar:

Hearty helpings for the Republicans; Lean Cuisine nibbles for the Democrats.

It’s been that way most of the time for the past 20 years, despite Ohio’s bona-fide status as a competitive battleground state and Democratic victories in Ohio in four of the last six presidential elections.

Republicans hold all statewide executive offices and the five incumbents — Gov. John Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor Dave Yost, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Treasurer Josh Mandel — are unchallenged in the GOP primary.

The Democrats have managed to find candidates for all the races and there’s even a primary for governor. Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive and party-endorsed candidate, should clobber Larry Ealy, a Dayton-area political gadfly.

Still, neither FitzGerald nor any other Democratic candidates has held a statewide office. Only former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, the candidate for attorney general, has run statewide before. Pepper lost to Yost in the 2010 auditor’s race.

FitzGerald and Pepper both have political bases in major metropolitan areas, Cleveland and Cincinnati, respectively. That’s a start but far from statewide name recognition. Cleveland voters pay little attention to Cincinnati politics and vice versa for the voters in Cincinnati who think of themselves as part of the tri-state region — Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

The other Democratic candidates — state Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland for secretary of state, state Rep. John Patrick Carney of Columbus for auditor and state Rep. Connie Pillich of Cincinnati for treasurer — are all serious lawmakers, but Democrats are in such deep minorities in the House and Senate that it’s doubtful that few voters outside their own districts know who they are.

For a generation or two of Ohio voters, this lopsided Republican advantage in races for statewide offices must seem like the way things always have been.

They haven’t, but you have to return to the Democrats’ glory days of the 1980s to find different statewide political menus. Back then, the Democrats feasted and Republicans went hungry.

By 1982, there weren’t really two parties in Ohio. There were the Democrats and Republican Gov. James A. Rhodes. Rhodes was finishing up his 16th year as governor. He was first elected in 1962, re-elected in 1966 and then had to sit out the 1970 race because the Ohio Constitution wouldn’t permit him to seek a third consecutive four-year term.

He was back in 1974, upsetting Democratic Gov. John J. Gilligan and won re-election in 1978 against Democrat Richard F. Celeste.

When Rhodes won his first term as governor in 1962, the Ohio Republican Party, with Akron’s Ray C. Bliss as chairman, was among the strongest in the nation. Bliss left the state job in 1965 to become national Republican chairman.

Gradually, the state party became a vehicle for Rhodes’ ambition, with other functions, such as finding candidates for other statewide offices, an afterthought.

Bliss once told Lee Leonard, a reporter and columnist for United Press International and later the Columbus Dispatch, that the Ohio Republican chairmen who followed him believed the party should work closely with the governor.

“But Jim Rhodes never did anything unless it was to benefit Jim Rhodes,” Bliss told Leonard.

As a result, by 1982, Democrats held all statewide executive offices except governor.

Their lineup of candidates for the 1982 Democratic primary was power packed.

For governor, Celeste, who had been lieutenant governor and also director of the Peace Corps, defeated Attorney General William J. Brown and Jerry Springer, a Cincinnati mayor and city councilman better known these days for his trash-talking TV show.

Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., the incumbent secretary of state, won the attorney general nomination.

Incumbent Auditor Thomas E. Ferguson won the nomination for another term.

State Rep. Sherrod Brown, then a boy wonder of Ohio politics and now a U.S. senator, won the nomination for secretary of state against Dennis Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor and later a U.S. House member, and two other opponents.

It was the primary contest for treasurer, a down ticket office with little political sex appeal, that proved how deep the Democratic bench was in those days.

The race attracted seven candidates, including two from Summit County with impressive political credentials, James R. Williams and Kenneth Cox. Williams had been an at-large Akron city councilman and U.S. attorney for Northern Ohio. He later served as a municipal court and common pleas court judge.

Cox, a leader in the state Senate, had served as Barberton mayor.

Among the others, Lee C. Falke was highly regarded as the Montgomery County prosecutor.

The winner was the only woman in the race, Mary Ellen Withrow, the Marion County treasurer. President Bill Clinton later appointed Withrow U.S. treasurer.

Democrats swept all the statewide executive races and repeated in 1986.

By 1990, however, the GOP started its comeback. Rhodes finally was gone from the ballot, vanquished by Celeste in the 1986 governor’s race. A new GOP state chairman, Robert Bennett of Cuyahoga County, brought back Bliss’ approach of putting the party’s interests ahead of any individual candidate’s.

Republicans won two statewide races that year, George Voinovich for governor and Bob Taft for secretary of state. They won all the races in 1994, 1998 and 2004 before Tom Noe and the “Coingate” scandal derailed the GOP in 2006. Democrats won all statewide races except auditor.

In 2010, however, Republicans again swept all statewide offices.

The state Republican Party these days is clearly under the control of Kasich, who forced the ouster of Kevin DeWine as chairman and had him replaced with Matt Borges.

Democrats can hope that this Kasich-centric approach helps. For a long time, not much else has.

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 can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.