As Ohio became reliably red, the Republican Party was changing

As Democrats lost blue collar voters, GOP candidates became extreme

Republican Sen. Rob Portman typified the kind of mainstream conservative Ohio elected, but candidates seeking to succeed him are appealing to the party's extremes, columnist Stu Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican Sen. Rob Portman typified the kind of mainstream conservative Ohio elected, but candidates seeking to succeed him are appealing to the party's extremes, columnist Stu Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 24, 2022 at 6:00am

Once upon a time, Ohio was a swing state. While it was slightly more Republican than the country as a whole, the Buckeye State voted with the winning presidential nominee fourteen consecutive elections, from 1964 to 2016.

But that now seems like ancient history.

Donald Trump carried the state twice comfortably, by about 8 points in both 2016 and 2020, even though he was losing nationally by 2 points in 2016 and 4 points in 2020.

All six of the state elected officials (excluding members of the state’s Supreme Court) – governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer – are Republicans. And all are white men.

Twelve of the state’s 16 members of the House of Representatives are Republicans, as is one of the state’s United States senators, retiring two-term senator Rob Portman.

The lone Democrat elected statewide is now Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was last reelected by just under 7 points in 2018 (53.4 percent to 46.6 percent), over GOP challenger Rep. Jim Renacci.

Brown beat state Treasurer Josh Mandel by 6 points six years earlier, and he clobbered then-incumbent Republican senator Mike DeWine by more than a dozen points in 2006, a terrible year nationally for Republicans.

Ohio has become reliably Republican for the same reasons that states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia and Kentucky have been moving toward the GOP. White, blue-collar, and rural voters who once voted Democratic have left the party, preferring the Republican Party particularly on cultural issues. The result is that Biden carried just seven of the state’s 88 counties in 2020.

So, it’s not hard to understand how and why Ohio has changed. The realignment that has been taking place for the last decade or two has flipped the Buckeye State from a toss-up/tilting Republican state to at least leaning Republican.

What is strange is how the Republican Party has changed.

The party used to nominate and elect mainstream conservatives like Jim Rhodes, George Voinovich, William Saxbe, John Kasich, Rob Portman and Mike DeWine, who is seeking reelection as governor. 

But this cycle’s crop of Republican Senate hopefuls includes ideological extremists who are pandering to the party’s Trump and Freedom Caucus wings.

I’ve written before about Josh Mandel’s transformation, as have others. He continues to fawn over Trump, expressing his contempt for the “establishment” and the separation of church and state.

“Shut down government schools and put schools in churches and synagogues,” he tweeted on Oct. 21, 2021.

“Just had an inspiring lunch in Cincy with one of the Patriots who marched on January 6th. Free the Democrats’ political prisoners!” he tweeted on Sept. 9, 2021.

“To the godless people of the left: Life begins at conception!” tweeted Mandel on Oct. 28, 2021.

“Steve Bannon = Patriot. Liz Cheney = Traitor,” was an Oct. 20, 2021tweet.

Finally, in a Sept. 18, 2021 tweet comparing the Chinese Communist Party to the Democratic National Committee, Mandel said that the DNC wants to “Facilitate the invasion of our country by drug cartels and child sex traffickers” and “Elect pro-Sharia politicians to infiltrate our government.”

All of this lunacy has earned Mandel the endorsement of the Club for Growth, Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee, former Trump campaign legal advisor Jenna Ellis, and talk show host Mark Levin.

Meanwhile, author J.D. Vance, who once blistered Trump with criticism, is now worshipping at the alter of the former president.

“Biden has looked at his approval ratings and realizes that the only way to win in ’24 is to replace the citizens of this country with illegal foreigners. The invasion he’s allowing to happen at the border is about power for democrats and nothing more,” tweeted Vance on Feb. 16.

Three days later, Vance tweeted, “I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”

He has been endorsed by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley; Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Banks, R-Ind.; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; Fox News bomb thrower Tucker Carlson; and mega-investor/donor libertarian Peter Thiel.

There are others in the race, of course, including businessman Mike Gibbons, who has Rand Paul’s endorsement; Jane Timken, a former Ohio GOP state chair who has been endorsed by the retiring Portman; and wealthy businessman Matt Dolan, the only major Republican hopeful who has not built his race around wooing Trump.

So, there is still a chance, I suppose, that the Ohio GOP will nominate someone for the Senate who isn’t bitter, petty and consumed with anger – someone who is conservative but also reasoned, reasonable, tolerant and sympathetic to the idea of a big tent Republican Party.

Just don’t bet your house on it.