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After unprecedented election losses nationwide, Democrats find a rare bright spot in Hamilton County

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Posted at 2:18 PM, Nov 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-10 05:43:40-05

CINCINNATI -- If shell-shocked Democrats awoke on Wednesday morning looking for a bright spot, they found one in Hamilton County.

Republican Donald Trump may have pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in history to win the White House. And the U.S. Senate stayed red, helped in part by Rob Portman’s easy re-election win in Ohio.

But in this corner of southwest Ohio, oddly enough it was Democrats who had the bragging rights.

“Hamilton County surprised a lot of people,” said Jared Kamrass, a principal at Rivertown Strategies and a Democratic political strategist. “If you’re a Democrat in leadership in Hamilton County pretty you’ve got to feel pretty good about your future and if you’re a Republican you've got to be pretty concerned.”

In the biggest local race, Denise Driehaus emerged as the likely unofficial winner over Republican Dennis Deters, giving Democrats their first majority on the Hamilton County Commission since 2006.

Political newcomer and Democrat Aftab Pureval pulled the upset victory of the evening, easily defeating Republican incumbent Tracy Winkler in the clerk of court race.

“It’s symbolic. He’s held up as this symbol for progress in Hamilton County – a young person with a funny name knocking off  Winkler,” Kamrass said.

It’s also proof that Hamilton County, once a Republican stronghold, is losing its swing county status and becoming a brighter shade of Democratic blue.

“I think it’s probably safe to say that we’ve  made the transition from red to purple to blue,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “There’s been a demographic shift. Some of those folks who used to make Hamilton County purple are now living in Warren County.”

In recent years, Hamilton County has attracted more African Americans, Hispanics and young people. Meanwhile, some white families moved out to the suburbs of Warren and Butler counties, said Tim Burke, chair of the Democratic Party in Hamilton County. Since the last time a Republican won Hamilton County -- George W. Bush in 2004 -- Hamilton County has shed nearly 40,000 people. Surrounding suburban counties, Butler, Clermont and Warren, have gained more than 80,000 new residents during that time.

Young people, and the college-educated, like to cluster in urban areas, experts said.

“Democrats like to live near cities,” Niven said. “That trend is only getting stronger.”

While Clinton may have lost Ohio to Trump on Tuesday by a wider-than-expected margin, she outperformed in Hamilton County, where she won by more than 37,000 votes.

“Hillary Clinton won the county by three points - which is 50 percent better than how President Obama did in 2012,” Kamrass said.

In fact, Hamilton County was one of the few areas where Clinton over-performed this year, said Wright State University political science professor Lee Hannah.

She failed to rack up as many votes as she needed in urban Cuyahoga and Franklin counties.

“For their ground game – it’s certainly telling that there was lack of enthusiasm,” Hannah said. 

That strong Clinton ground game might have hurt local GOP candidates, said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

“We’re disappointed by the local election here,” Triantafilou said.

“We try to build a team here but with the Clinton machine here, the paid staff, we could never match it,” Triantafilou said.  “There wasn’t a paid machine in this county like she has.”

Further proof of the Hamilton County’s growing Democratic bent: The $48 million Cincinnati Public Schools and universal preschool levy won with 62 percent of the vote. That marks the largest winning margin since 1952.

Not only that, but voters approved almost every single tax and bond issue in villages throughout the county.

“There were about 33 tax issues on the ballot and … only one of them lost,” Burke said “That’s shocking.”

Burke believes the strong Democratic performance will make it easier for him to recruit future candidates – especially looking ahead to the 2018 Cincinnati City Council race.

“We will have too many candidates for City Council again and (Triantafilou) will struggle to have enough,” Burke said. “I know that we will have more people wanting to get a democratic endorsement than we have seats to endorse.”

But Triantafilou doesn’t think Republicans here should be counted out entirely.

There were some election wins: Former judge and Republican Norbet Nadel won the Hamilton County recorder seat. Sen. Rob Portman as well as Ohio Supreme Court Judges Pat DeWine and Pat Fischer performed well in Hamilton County.

“The county now leans Democrat – it’s been that way for several years,” Triantafilou said.