WASHINGTON — Every fourth-grader who paid attention during Ohio history knows Ohio’s reputation: As the native state of eight U.S. presidents, it’s the “cradle of presidents” — giving America William McKinley, James A. Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant, among others.
But it’s also safe to say the cradle’s been empty a long time.
If Republican John Kasich and Democrat Sherrod Brown decide to go forward with presidential bids in 2020, they’ll be trying to reverse a century-long drought during which no president has been elected from Ohio.
A few have tried — John Glenn made a short-lived bid in 1984, former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich gave it a shot in both 2004 and 2008, and Kasich, of course, was the last barrier before President Donald Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016.
But no Ohioan has pulled in the delegates, much less won their party’s nomination, since James M. Cox of Dayton and Warren G. Harding of Marion matched-up in 1920. Harding won, becoming the last president from the Buckeye state.
The last time Ohio was a consistent cradle of commanders-in-chief came right after the Civil War. The period between 1868 and 1880 gave the country three Ohioans in the White House: Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes and Garfield.
History has generally given those presidents a bad rap, but James Robenalt, a presidential historian and Cleveland-based attorney, said they were the group that had to unify the nation after the Civil War.
“They knit the country back together again,” he said.
Back then, Ohio was considered a swing state because it had both northern and southern-style components, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. During that era — when Republicans were a party of the north and Democrats a party of the south — “there was a real feeling that having an Ohioan on the ticket was good politics.” Ohio was one of the few states that could back either a Democrat or a Republican.
The state is still a swing state, with 18 coveted electoral votes, but the politics have made it harder for an Ohioan to win the nomination.
“Ohio is a ‘mainstream state’ that tends to elect ‘mainstream’ candidates,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster in suburban Washington. “The ‘mainstream’ candidates from either side of the aisle don’t tend to have strong access in presidential primaries of late.”
The proximity of New Hampshire as the state with the first presidential primary has attracted scores of candidates from adjacent states. Massachusetts statewide officials such as Democrats John Kerry in 2004, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 all won the New Hampshire Primary, as did Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, who had been governor of Massachusetts.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, easily won the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Primary. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts could benefit from the same effect in her expected run for president in 2020.
By contrast, Ohio is simply not close to any either early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2016, Kasich bypassed Iowa and devoted his energies to New Hampshire. But he finished a distant second to Trump in New Hampshire and he never posed a serious challenge afterward, winning only his home state of Ohio.
“The Democrats make a mistake,” said Mary Anne Sharkey, a nonpartisan consultant in Cleveland. “They should be looking to Ohio for candidates. If you can get Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the ballgame is over.”
She said all too often national Democrats look at the presidential race “from an East Coast perspective. They are not looking at how you can actually win.”
“You have to pick up the heartland,” she said. “Those are the states which are in play. We know how the East Coast is going to vote. We know how the West Coast is going to vote. We know how the South is going to vote.”
Some wonder if the early primaries play a role in the state’s lack of candidates.
“I don’t think it’s because we are running dolts,” said James Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The problem is we’ve never really had somebody who has planned this right, get started early, and camp out in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. “Unless they are willing to do that, forget it. Kasich got in late. You can’t wait.”
The last truly serious presidential contender was Republican Sen. Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. As the leader of the conservative and isolationist wing of the Republican Party, the younger Taft was a formidable contender for the GOP nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952.
But in each case, the Republicans opted for more internationalist nominees: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Taft died in 1953.
But the state has had strong would-be candidates in recent decades that just never opted to pull the trigger, said Kondik. Former Sen. and Gov. Frank Lausche was considered as a possible running mate to both Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Harry Truman, when Lausche served as Ohio governor, but neither man ultimately selected him.
And former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan could’ve been a potential contender in 1976 if he’d won his re-election in 1974, said Kondik, but lost to James A. Rhodes.
In 1987, Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste considered it, but decided not to after stories of about his personal life ended his chances.
“You would think given the importance of industrial Midwest there should be prime territory,” said Dale Butland, a former adviser to the late Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. “There was a time when Dick Celeste was talking about running for president. He would have been the kind of person who could have caught on. But he never got out of the starting gate. Senator Glenn ran and he didn’t get very far.”
Some of it is just fate, said Kondik.
“It just hasn’t really panned out,” he said. “I would say that for a lot of the most prominent Ohio politicians on both sides of the aisle, there were certain circumstances that got in the way of them really becoming viable presidential candidates.”
But what about Kasich or Brown in 2020? While we may have a hint on how Kasich would play based on his performance in 2016, the Democratic field is wide open, Kondik said.
“Anything could happen,” he said.