Election Review: Ohio

Introduction

With 2022 in the rearview mirror, we at Split Ticket decided to start a new series called Election Review devoted to analyzing significant House races on a state by state basis. In addition to our previous Against The Trend publications, which focused on crossover voting driven by down-ballot lag, Election Review will utilize our Wins-Above-Replacement Model (WAR) and Congressional Voting Index (CVI) to quantify midterm narratives while offering preliminary thoughts on the 2024 cycle.

Today’s inaugural edition focuses on Ohio, one of the few midwestern states in which the generic ballot shifted leftward (1.0) between 2020 and 2022 according to our SHAVE research. Democrats won the Buckeye State’s three most competitive House seats in November and overperformed by about 5 points relative to expectations in the accompanying Senate contest despite ultimately falling short.

One primary conclusion prevailed above all: candidate quality deltas hurt Republicans more than Democrats in 2022, costing the GOP winnable races for House and Senate nationwide. Let’s start by examining Ohio’s three most competitive districts, all of which were rated as Tossups before the election. Please note that baseline district partisanships come from the CVI. 

Candidate Quality Problems Hurt Republicans

One of the starkest House Republican underperformances in a race classified as competitive last year occurred in Ohio’s 9th district, an R+3.6 seat that incumbent Democrat Marcy Kaptur ended up winning by more than 13 points — a WAR overperformance of D+15. GOP nominee J.R. Majewski had come under fire late in the game for misstating his military record, an error that cost his campaign valuable funding from the national party shortly before November. 

Majewski was never expected to win his May primary, although we at Split Ticket pointed out his upset potential early on. President Trump did not officially endorse a contender in that race, but his silence spoke louder than his words, allowing Majewski to secure the nomination with 36% of the vote. The Toledo native successfully portrayed himself as the “Trumpiest” alternative to state legislators Craig Riedel and Theresa Gavarone, both of whom represented the “establishment”. 

In the rightward-trending 9th, which backed Obama by 17 in 2012, populist messaging helped Majewski win the primary but ultimately imperiled his general election chances against Kaptur, with many traditionally-Democratic white working class voters toeing the historical party line. 

As the map above shows, Majewski’s primary coalition was also more geographically efficient than his opponents’. An insufficient amount of Gavarone’s Wood County base was included in the district to put her over the top. Riedel’s Defiance County bulwark likewise failed to secure his victory. Majewski, meanwhile, won Lucas County (Toledo) and swept the east with its high white working class population, exemplified by his hometown of Port Clinton in Ottawa County.

It’s unclear whether Majewski would have secured the nomination against just one credible opponent. At first glance, intuition suggests a stand-alone candidate would have united the Riedel and Gavarone camps. That certainly could have happened, given Majewski’s modest pluralities in Lucas and Sandusky counties, but there’s no way to be sure. It’s more likely that Majewski would have beaten either Riedel or Gavarone anyway because both relied heavily on regionalized bases associated with their legislative districts.

Going into November, we rated the race Leans Republican despite the Leans Democratic consensus because we expected a Republican-leaning national environment, especially pronounced in the Midwest, to energize the accelerating rightward trends of the Trump-era in the 9th district. In other words, the 2020 and 2021 cycles suggested that polarization alone could knock off Kaptur under the right conditions. 

Ironically, almost all of our expectations failed to materialize in the Midwest last November. Generic congressional ballots in states like Ohio shifted leftward relative to 2020, tried-and-tested incumbents like Kaptur benefitted from their experience, regionalism had a fundamental impact on swing races despite an increase in overall polarization, and persuadable voters, many of whom voted for Trump, punished nominees like Majewski for appearing too extreme or untrustworthy to serve in the House.

Contrary to expectations, Majewski’s worst underperformances weren’t concentrated solely in Erie, Lucas, and Ottawa, traditionally-Democratic counties with high WWC populations which Kaptur had represented repeatedly over the preceding three decades. Majewski underwhelmed similarly out west, winning Defiance County by only 20 points — Trump and J.D. Vance carried it by about 35. Majewski’s weak numbers in the Trumpiest parts of the district, mostly new turf for Kaptur, doomed him to a double-digit loss.

Since Tim Ryan managed to narrowly win the latest iteration of the 9th in the Senate race, it’s unlikely any Republican would have been able to unseat Kaptur in 2022. That said, a more credible nominee like Gavarone or Riedel — void of any clear baggage and openly supported by national Republican infrastructure — almost certainly would have made the difference between a blowout and close race. Had Kaptur retired, our WAR model predicts a generic Republican would have won this district by about 2 points. Keep in mind that J.D. Vance only lost this seat 50-49% despite being a 5.2-point WAR underperformer.

To a lesser, albeit still noticeable, extent, candidate quality also made a difference in Ohio’s 13th district — which connects Akron, Canton, and the suburbs lying in between. Unlike the Toledo-based 9th, the CVI pegs the 13th at D+1. Biden carried the seat by a similar three-point margin, seemingly giving Democrat Emilia Sykes an advantage in one of the country’s top open races. Despite the seat’s partisanship, the forecasting consensus favored Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, who, like Majewski, had never held political office.

Sykes, who comes from a prominent Akron political family and previously served as Minority Leader of the Ohio State House, comfortably defeated the Trump-endorsed Gesiotto. In so doing, she energized the roots of Biden’s winning 2020 coalition (Akron and Canton) while generally expanding the Democratic brand in the marginal suburbs of both cities. Our WAR model shows that Sykes exceeded expectations by 5 points, making her the second best performing Ohio House Democrat behind Kaptur. Ryan, for what it’s worth, performed almost identically to Sykes overall.

Democrats also flipped the 1st district, a D+6 (CVI) seat encompassing Cincinnati along with its Hamilton County suburbs and Warren County exurbs. While redistricting did shift the 1st’s partisanship from Trump +3 to Biden +9, it wasn’t the only reason that councilman Greg Landsman defeated veteran Republican incumbent Steve Chabot. 

Originally elected in 1994, Chabot lost to Democrat Steve Driehaus in 2008 before staging a successful comeback in 2010 — an excellent year for Republicans. Despite his proven resilience and ability to outrun the top of the ticket in 2020 and 2016, all three Split Ticket WAR models found that Chabot actually underperformed relative to expectations. 

Conventional forecasting wisdom held that the experienced Chabot would be able to squeak by in 2022 despite hostile redistricting changes (though they could’ve been worse for him). At Split Ticket, we also suggested that popular Republican Governor Mike DeWine could help carry the incumbent over the line. 

While DeWine did end up carrying the 1st district comfortably, his performance didn’t help Chabot at all. The incumbent did better than both Trump and Vance in his new seat but underperformed in the traditionally-Republican suburban neck connecting Hamilton and Warren counties. Crossover voting was most pronounced in Anderson, Sycamore, and Deerfield townships — a sign that image matters a lot when trying to win over suburban moderates. Ryan, who got 54% here, also probably helped Landsman down-ballot.

Despite being an average candidate with a well-known brand, Chabot struggled to portray himself as a centrist amid the sensitive national political environment heightened by the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision. 538 recorded the Congressman as having fully denied Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, a liability that probably contributed partially to his loss. 

Lending credence to Split Ticket’s research on the relationship between ideology and electability, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (OH-04) and ex-Trump Administration official Max Miller (OH-07) were also WAR underperformers of D+4 and D+2, respectively.

Exceptions to the Rule: OH-10

Republicans did not underperform in all of Ohio’s House races, though. Apart from Chabot and Jordan, our WAR model pegged all other GOP incumbents in the state as overperformers. Of that group, none surpassed expectations more impressively than Mike Turner (R+14). A member of Congress since 2003 who now chairs the House Intelligence Committee, Turner’s mainstream image has helped him repeatedly win comfortable reelections in the marginally-Republican 10th district.

The latest version of the seat, which the CVI rates R+6.4, backed Turner by about 22 points in 2022. Turner’s strongest overperformances came in the southeastern suburbs of Dayton, though he also outran Trump within the city limits — partly a result of the inroads he has made with minority voters over the last two decades. A top WAR overperformer for the last three cycles, Turner is expected to hold his seat as long as he wishes. He is proof that the right Republicans can overcome candidate quality woes that plagued them in 2022.

Conclusions – 2024

While our official 2024 House ratings won’t be released for a few more months, each edition of Election Review aims to provide some early thoughts on how we plan to approach forecasting the chamber. Ohio is complicated because mid-decade redistricting remains a serious possibility in the state despite a new coalition government between Democrats and a faction of Republicans in the state house. We’ll break down the redistricting possibilities separately when and if it becomes necessary to do so.

Looking at the districts as they stand currently, it’s hard not to see Democrats as initial favorites to hold the 1st, 9th, and 13th districts. The burden lies with Republicans to prove that they can recruit credible challengers for 2024, a potentially difficult task given Chabot’s loss and Kaptur’s lopsided victory. Should Kaptur retire, the district alone would give the GOP an excellent pickup opportunity. Landsman is possibly the safest Democrat in a competitive seat, as Republicans are unlikely to significantly alter the Democratic-trending Cincinnati area in redistricting.

Sources

2020 Results Harvard VEST Shapefile

2022 Results Ohio State Board of Elections

Color Scheme @alexanderao

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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