The current wave of political realignment hitting the nation is breaking hard in Ohio. The exodus of working-class white voters from the Democratic Party has been most pronounced in the Buckeye State. Once a highly-competitive bellwether state, Ohio is now firmly red. Longtime hotbeds of blue strength in eastern Ohio along the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders have thrown out one Democratic Party incumbent after another. Political realignment varies at different paces, but in Ohio, one thing is clear — the Democratic floor is still falling. There is but one Democratic stalwart the GOP has yet to fell — Senator Sherrod Brown.
Sherrod Brown’s electoral longevity is widely seen to be an effect of his populist rhetoric which has historically appealed to working-class Ohio Democrats. Brown was the only statewide Democrat to win in 2018, as all other contested races at the statewide and congressional levels ended in GOP victories. But as the last man standing for the Ohio Democratic Party statewide, the burning question on everyone’s mind is: can he outrun realignment one more time? The last time Brown was on the ballot in a presidential year was 2012, when Barack Obama carried the state for the Democratic Party, and when working-class enclaves of eastern Ohio saw competitive elections up and down the ballot.
To answer this question, Split Ticket will look at some of the partisan gaps that have emerged in the region of eastern Ohio that comprises the 6th congressional district. Brown’s 2018 victory was made possible by outperforming every other Democrat in this region, as well as a wave of anti-Trump goodwill that insulated Brown from the more negative trends in the area. If Brown’s appeal above a generic-level Democratic candidate evaporates enough in 2024, that could prove fatal to his chances of re-election.
The 6th district encompasses 11 counties in eastern Ohio that are archetypal working-class white counties. Overall, the 6th backed Obama by 3 points in 2012, and then took a sharp turn to the right, backing Trump by 25 in 2016 and by 29 in 2020.
In the blue wave midterm year that was 2018, statewide Ohio Democrats hovered in the low 40’s — where gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray earned 41% and attorney general candidate Steve Dettelbach earned 42%. While better than Hillary Clinton’s share of 36%, it was still not enough to achieve a statewide win. Sherrod Brown on the other hand, nearly won the 6th, winning 49% of the vote.
Even in the midst of Democratic losses, the longtime stronghold of Mahoning County stuck with the party, voting for Cordray by 12 points and backing Brown by 21. These ancestral loyalties quickly shifted though, once Trump was on the ballot a second time. In 2020, Trump became the first Republican since 1972 to win Mahoning County. And in 2022, J.D. Vance defeated Democrat Tim Ryan — who was a longtime congressman in Northeast Ohio. All of this is borne out by looking at the primary turnout data from the state of Ohio’s voter file for the 6th district.
For the purpose of this article, primary turnout is a good heuristic for grassroots party enthusiasm. Since Ohio does not have formal party registration other than requesting a particular primary ballot, observing the change in partisan turnout over time can be useful.
Using 2012 as the base case, even with a noncompetitive Democratic presidential primary, the combined primary totals only narrowly favored Republicans, wth an R+2 split. In 2014, low turnout across the board yielded a D+21 split. But powered by the appeal of Donald Trump, 2016 marked a sea change in the 6th district. For the first time, Republicans outvoted Democrats in the primary in a number of counties. Even Mahoning County, which previously had been dark-blue, was only D+1 when looking at composite primary votes.
A blue wave year in 2018 engineered some reversion of these partisan splits, and a non-competitive 2020 primary election on both sides masked the true extent of the realignment. Mahoning County posted a D+34 partisan gap, which was almost as blue as the 2012 gap of D+35 was. But in the general election, these margins did not manifest as Trump won the county — which, in turn, is proof that there were self-identified Democrats who voted for Trump. The psychology of such decisions is beyond the scope of this article but it proves that there is more room to fall in the east for Ohio Democrats.
2022 marked the true end of Democratic self-identification in most of these counties. Dark-red counties such as Jefferson, Belmont, and Monroe all posted narrow Democratic advantages in the primary turnout in 2020, even after Joe Biden had all but locked down the nomination. These were gone for good in 2022 — with yesterday’s Democrats marching in the ranks of today’s GOP. Even Mahoning County, where Tim Ryan had a long-time congressional presence, had a GOP enthusiasm gap for the first time. D+35 in 2012 had now become R+13 10 years later. Considering that the raw turnout in the 6th district was virtually the same in both 2020 and 2022, this is more evidence that the previous “Democrats for Trump” are now simply “Republicans for Trump”. If the raw votes were the same but all counties got more Republican, that is a sign of solidifying Republican enthusiasm.
Perhaps, then, it is not as surprising that even Tim Ryan failed to win Mahoning County. Outside of heavily-black Youngstown, the white voters of the county have joined the rest of rural Ohio in becoming uniformly Republican. The down-ballot Democratic loyalty of eastern Ohio has been virtually wiped out in 6 years. The legislative and county-level offices in the region have all flipped in a dramatic overnight tide-shift. The realignment had not fully developed in 2018 allowing Brown to survive rather insulated from political winds, but came to hit with full force in 2022.
This all means one clear thing: the Ohio of 2024 that Sherrod Brown runs in, is not the same Ohio of 2012 in which he last took the presidential-year field. It is not even the same Ohio of 2018. Every Democrat save Brown has been eliminated due to the erosion of their crossover appeal and the reddening of the Buckeye State. But winning Mahoning by 21, losing Jefferson by 6, and losing Monroe by 5, are all political stunts of an earlier age. To survive what could be double-digit swings to the right in the counties of the 6th district, where Democrats have depended on competitive margins to win, Brown will have to find the votes elsewhere in the state. Brown has his work cut out for him.