Ohioans barely had time to can their yard signs for midterm candidates before political parties began descending on their neighborhoods in preparation for 2020.

Both parties are building up staff and volunteer ranks in the Buckeye State, getting an early start on the presidential election as President Donald Trump prepares to launch his re-election campaign this week and the increasingly crowded field of Democrats prepares for the first debates June 26 and 27.

Republicans are trying to solidify their position after Trump’s 8-point victory in Ohio in 2016 and a near-sweep of statewide elected offices in 2018, while state Democrats are intent on flipping Ohio’s 18 electoral votes for whoever emerges from the crowded Democratic primary.

Democrats have been left soul-searching over whether Ohio remains a swing state after Trump’s gains in such traditional Democratic strongholds as the Mahoning Valley and a midterm election in which Sen. Sherrod Brown was the party’s only statewide partisan victory.

The party’s candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, fell flat, despite collecting more than 2 million votes. His campaign manager told The New York Times shortly after the election that Democrats should focus on states like Arizona and Georgia instead of Ohio in 2020.

So far, the national response has been mixed. Earlier this year, one liberal super-political action committee left Ohio off of its list of states where it planned to invest for 2020. But last week, For Our Future included it among a group of seven states where the liberal super-PAC plans to spend up to $90 million.

State party Chairman David Pepper called the notion that Ohio is no longer a swing state “a Republican talking point,” pointing to a recent Morning Consult poll that concluded more Ohioans disapproved of Trump than approved of his work. In Florida, Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings were even, and he was slightly above water in Georgia, according to the poll.

Pepper said he was encouraged that Democrats narrowed their loss margins in statewide races for auditor, secretary of state and treasurer compared with 2010, two years before Ohio helped re-elect President Barack Obama.

“Our goal as Democrats is to be the state that ends the Trump presidency,” Pepper said. "Obviously if he doesn’t win Ohio, it’s over."

No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio, the nation's leading bellwether state since 1900.

 

Ohio Republicans

The Ohio GOP isn’t treating the race like it’s finished. The party already has added two communication staffers this year and promoted a political director. The Republican National Committee recently appointed a state director, and the Trump campaign tapped Clayton Henson, an Ohio native who worked on the 2016 campaign in Ohio, as its regional director.

“Ohio is always going to be in play, I think especially when you look at the Electoral College and the map,” said Jane Timken, chair of the Ohio GOP.

In the coming months, the state party plans to add six regional directors and 15 field staff. It will send them into neighborhoods around Ohio armed with voter data they can access through a mobile app, where they can enter more information that feeds back into the database.

“You have to know what the electorate is thinking,” Timken said.

 

Ohio Democrats

The Ohio Democratic Party already has hired 10 organizers, who have begun canvassing and attending events to enlist volunteers the party hopes will help it flip Ohio blue in 2020.

It also is working to get voters registered or, if they have been stripped from the rolls, re-registered, focusing on urban areas where Democrats perform well and Pepper said have been hardest hit by “voter purging.”

One of the biggest battlegrounds for the parties likely will be in suburbs, where both sides think they can sway 2020 voters by getting involved early and swinging local races in 2019.

Democrats will need to focus on a message that resonates with both urban and rural voters for 2020, including a focus on how the opioid crisis continues to afflict Ohio, and targeting Republicans as the enemies of affordable health care, said Paul Beck, an emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University.

 

Trump in Ohio

Ohio is a “requirement” for Trump’s path to re-election, but Democrats did little to break through in 2018 and Trump “does not seem to be taking the state for granted,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

As the campaign wears on, though, Trump’s activity in Ohio could send a signal about how he and his campaign view his chances here. Continuing to fight hard for votes in a state where he performed well in 2016 could signal that they see Ohio as up for grabs, the Cleveland-area native wrote in an email.

“Ohio is still winnable for Democrats but I doubt it’s going to be decisive to the outcome, the way it was in 2004,” Kondik wrote. “If a Democrat wins Ohio, it probably would be part of a broader Democratic victory that sees that candidate racking up more than 300 electoral votes nationally.”

 

Contact Rick Rouan at rrouan@dispatch.com. On Twitter: @RickRouan.