Jim Siegel The Columbus Dispatch
Sep 2, 2018 at 5:00 AM
If Ohio House Democrats expect to start climbing out of their deep minority this year, Franklin County will be key.
Democrats already had eyes on flipping a trio of Franklin County House seats based on indications that President Donald Trump is struggling with support in suburban areas, particularly among women.
Those hopes were further bolstered in August when Democrat Danny O’Connor lost a narrow special election for the 12th Congressional District to Republican Troy Balderson, but in doing so racked up big margins across northern Franklin County. The congressional seat overlaps major portions of the 19th and 21st Ohio House Districts, and a small piece of the 24th District.
Those GOP-held districts share three key characteristics: Hillary Clinton carried each in 2016 by double-digit margins, none features a GOP incumbent, and Democrats have what appear to be solid female candidates.
“The results of the 12th Congressional District were pretty eye-opening for everyone,” said Aaron Fisher, executive director of the House Democratic caucus.
“You have voters who are more educated — and that is going to be our bread and butter — who are turned off by what is happening in the Republican Party.”
O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder, got 62 percent of the vote in precincts overlapping the 21st House District, which includes Dublin and Worthington.
O’Connor won 57 percent in the 19th District, which includes Gahanna, New Albany and Westerville. He also won 75 percent in the few precincts that overlap the 24th District, which includes Upper Arlington and a swath of western Franklin County.
“That tells me that in these suburban seats we can be outspent, which we know we will, and still win,” Fisher said.
Not so fast, says Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, who in 2016 outperformed Trump by nearly 19 points in the 21st District. He is term-limited at the end of this year.
Suburban Republicans and swing voters, he said, are “a very distinct and fickle electorate,” he said. They don’t like political division, break with the party on some issues, and give credit to candidates with an independent streak, he said.
The district, he said, remains largely Republican, “but that particular type of Republican is more of a swing voter, and they’re willing to vote against Republicans at the federal level because of Trump or Congress. But they tend to come home for races where they are not displeased with what’s going on.”
If a Trump backlash was going to have an impact, Duffey said, he would have seen it in 2016.
“I don’t see people following suit with the Balderson-O’Connor race, because I think that was a proxy for Trump vs. Clinton,” he said.
Ohio House Democrats have lost seats in each of the past four elections, giving Republicans a record 66-33 majority.
Drawn by Republicans in 2011, districts have changed as the suburbs become younger and more diverse, Fisher said. Mitt Romney narrowly won all three targeted House districts in Franklin County in 2012, but Clinton won them easily four years later.
Democrats have long talked about flipping the 21st District but have consistently fallen short.
They are counting on political newcomer Beth Liston, a doctor of internal medicine and pediatrics, who said that based on what she’s hearing as she knocks on doors, she wasn’t surprised by O’Connor’s performance.
“It’s as simple as people want change and want new leaders right now,” she said. “People are tired of politics. They want action. They want people who can fix their health-care system, fund their schools and get things done.”
Her opponent, Republican Stu Harris, is an attorney who has been on the ballot multiple times as a member of the Dublin school board.
“I think the voters in the 21st House District are some of the most informed voters in all of Ohio,” he said of what is, in fact, the most highly educated district in the state. “The voting records have shown over the years is they look at who the candidate is and what they are running for.”
The political mess in Washington is an issue, Harris said, which is why it’s important that voters hear from him.
“I think it’s important to talk about civility in politics and society,” he said. “That means dignity and respect across the board.”
In the 19th District, Republican Tim Barhorst is taking on Democrat Mary Lightbody. In the 24th District, Republican Erik Yassenoff is facing Democrat Allison Russo.