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Ohio’s Political Transformation

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Ohio’s Political Transformation

The former swing state is no longer up for grabs. August 2, 2022
Politics and law

“Ohio is the most important state in the country,” wrote Washington Post commentator Chris Cillizza in 2012, possibly looking to highlight how incumbent Barack Obama held the largest polling lead there. Obama’s message secured the Rust Belt for Democrats in 2008 and 2012, but in 2016 and 2020, this advantage melted away. In the 2022 midterms, given strong chances for the GOP to pick up Democrat-held congressional seats, Ohio remains of towering electoral importance—and it has now become Republicans’ state to lose.

The victory of Donald Trump–endorsed J. D. Vance in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary demonstrates the state’s ongoing shift. Vance, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, conservative intellectual, and author of the acclaimed memoir Hillbilly Elegy, has favored aggressively anti-establishment proposals like seizing the assets of left-wing universities and political nonprofits and firing every federal bureaucrat. He won 32 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. An Info Strategy Northeast (ISNE) poll of voters in Ohio’s ninth congressional district, which stretches along the coast of Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland but contains a mix of urban and rural voters, provides a cross-section of the state. Respondents attested to a strong rightward drift: 30 percent said that they had become more conservative since 2016, and only 21 percent more liberal.

The Republican who won the OH-9 primary for the House of Representatives, J. R. Majewski, also showed surprising strength in ISNE’s poll. Despite having almost zero name recognition and facing a 39-year incumbent in November, Majewski polled within five percentage points of his Democratic opponent. Majewski is more than a Trump-endorsed candidate: he refers to himself as “Ultra MAGA,” raised $20,000 to bring 30 Ohioans to the January 6 “Save America” rally, and painted his front lawn with a “Trump 2020” banner. The Cook Political Report has rated OH-9 an R+3 district for the 2022 midterm election, and FiveThirtyEight rates the race as a 48–49 split leaning Democrat, which suggests that Majewski is likely to close his polling gap soon.

Another Republican primary winner is conservative media personality and former Miss Ohio Madison Gilbert, whose endorsement from Trump led her to victory over a slate of more moderate candidates in the OH-13 (Akron–Youngstown) primary. OH-13 is the current congressional seat of Tim Ryan, winner of the Democratic Senate primary, who will face Vance in November. Gilbert, who grew up in the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas, endorsed Trump in 2016 through her Washington Times “Millennial Mindset” column. Still, the Cook Political Report rates the district as a dead heat between Gilbert and her Democratic opponent, current state representative Emilia Sykes.

In OH-7, first-time candidate Max Miller stormed through the Republican primary, capturing 71 percent of the vote, and will almost certainly win the strongly Republican seat in November. Miller cut his political teeth in the Trumpian movement. After serving in the Marine Corps, he worked for the Trump campaign in 2016, eventually becoming a Trump appointee to the Treasury Department and then the White House, where he gained a reputation as one of the president’s most loyal supporters. He backed Trump’s decision-making at key moments, including during the George Floyd riots and after the 2020 election. In August, Miller plans to marry his fiancée Emily Moreno, the daughter of former Senate primary candidate Bernie Moreno, who dropped out in February and endorsed Vance after meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

I asked Moreno how he and other Ohio voters view the midterm elections and the legacy of Donald Trump. In his words: “It’s not just that Ohio voters are conservative, they also understand how much President Trump did for Ohio and for America . . . In a crowded field like we had in the U.S. Senate race, President Trump’s endorsement was in essence the ‘seal of approval’ his supporters needed to get through the clutter of competing messages and pick their candidate.”

GOP voters may be surprised that the same party that produced a Rob Portman could also produce a Bernie Moreno or a J. D. Vance. Even more surprising is how Ohio, once part of Obama’s “blue wall,” has evolved into a state that could elect a far-right candidate. Though Vance is backed by campaign funds from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, many Ohioans see him as a candidate who won’t stop until the institutions they blame for America’s current circumstances—the federal government, the military, the elections system, and the foreign policy establishment—are reformed.

Ohio’s rightward shift is being driven, at least in part, by economics. Prices have soared, particularly for gas, and supply-chain disruptions are hurting families, small businesses, and material trades like agriculture, trucking, and construction. Factories are experiencing delays for parts manufactured overseas. Interest rates are rising, and the number of new mortgages is falling. This state of affairs parallels the 2010 midterms, when the Tea Party reaction to the 2008 financial crisis and Obamacare propelled Republicans to key Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Portman won election to the Senate in 2010 by calling for the repeal of Obamacare, but he then developed a reputation for his relative moderation and voted against a straightforward repeal of Obamacare in 2017 (though he would later vote for a “skinny” repeal bill). Now, voters appear ready for new leadership.

But the economy alone cannot fully explain Ohio’s electoral mentality. For one thing, the winning candidates mentioned above are all closely aligned with Trump, and not just economically. Case in point: Governor Mike DeWine was one of the most heavy-handed Republican governors during the pandemic in terms of lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates, and more. Most observers expected this to hurt him in a statewide primary—but Trump refrained from endorsing any of his opponents, and DeWine won a plurality of 48 percent.

Indeed, the strongest energy for Trump-backed candidates comes from Trump voters angry about the 2020 election. For many Ohio voters, Trump encapsulates the distrust that middle Americans feel toward the nation’s institutions and elite class. In a Fabrizio–Lee poll of Ohio GOP voters in February, 62 percent said they believe the 2020 election was stolen, while an additional 29 percent say that there was “at least some fraud.”

If Ohio voters continue to perceive American decline, their votes will likely drift further to the right. The Democratic Party’s heavy-handed progressivism is putting it at odds with Ohioans, who, under current conditions, are not likely to be any less angry or motivated in 2024.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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