In many Ohio statehouse, congressional races the winner is already decided

Posted at 7:23 AM, Oct 17, 2016

Ohio’s statehouse and congressional races will be like watching a game of Ohio State University football on Election Day: Everybody already knows who’s going to win.

Out of the 115 Ohio statehouse senate and representative seats up for election, only a handful – none in Hamilton County – are competitive. Additionally, not one of the 16 congressional races on the ballot will leave anyone sweating over the outcome.

Political experts say excessive gerrymandering – when political parties draw district lines to favor their candidates in elections – in Ohio has led to one of the least competitive election years for statehouse and congressional races in recent memory.

Voters, as well as the two political parties, will have little ability to flip a candidate’s seat Democrat or Republican this fall.

“Their fate is pre-ordained,” University of Cincinnati professor David Niven said of congressional and statehouse candidates running for office. “There is almost no one in the statehouse who is worried about being punished by the voters for doing something that’s out of step with their values. There’s no one in Congress.”

‘This is a long shot’

Republicans – who control all of the statewide elected offices and hold a majority in the statehouse – have a clear advantage heading into Election Day.

The GOP is expected to sweep the 12 congressional house seats it currently controls while the Democrats will hold control of the remaining four. The non-partisan Cook Political Report lists each of those seats as a “solid” win for their respective parties. Included are Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Cincinnati), who are both running for re-election this fall.

At the statehouse level, 115 state senate and representative seats will be decided on Election Day – few are considered truly competitive and the GOP holds a decisive majority.

While some worry that GOP nominee Donald Trump could spoil down-ballot races across the country, few have speculated that the controversy will change the outcome for congressional races in Ohio.

But Democrat challenger Michele Young sees Trump’s troubles as an opening in an unlikely path to defeat Chabot. The area up for control – District 1 – starts in Cincinnati and spans through deep red Warren County.

“Even though it’s a gerrymandered district, because of Donald Trump and this year, the answer is: We can win,” Young, an Indian Hill lawyer, said. She plans to push the message that women here should be better represented – with a female legislator – in congress.

Republicans face uphill battles in some races throughout the state too. 

Matthew Wahlert is blunt about that.

“Look, I’m no idiot: I can look at the numbers and say, ‘This is not the time to run,” said Wahlert, the 47-year-old teacher who is running as a Republican for a statehouse seat in Hamilton County’s solidly Democratic District 32. “This is a long shot.”

But Wahlert, who said some of his high school political science students urged him to run for office, fears Democrats have become too comfortable in the district, where voters haven’t elected a Republican since it was created in 1967. The statehouse district, which has strong support from black voters, stretches from Cincinnati to Mount  Healthy.

“The Democrats have taken this seat for granted,” Wahlert said. “I’ve had people shocked when I knock on their door.”

Spending money for fun? 

There were always a number of uncompetitive races when Gary Cates, a West Chester Township Republican, served in the statehouse from 1995 to 2011.

But this year is unlike anything he’s recalls while in office.

“There seems to be a lot more uncontested races,” Cates said. “That’s not uncommon anymore, particularly with the way district lines are drawn.”

That means primary voters – who tend to be party loyalists and less moderate than general voters – wind up crowning a winner before Election Day.

Take, for example, the closely watched contest to replace former Speaker John Boehner’s seat in the 8th Congressional District. Outside political groups dropped nearly $2 million in the primary race between the 15 Republicans who vied for the job during the March 15 primary.

Rep. Warren Davidson won out and by the time a special election against the Democratic challenger was held in June, only 6 percent of voters turned out. The Washington, D.C. group that backed Davidson didn’t see a need to send any cash for help in that election.

So much focus on winning the primary race leaves some lawmakers pandering to their base.

“When you have districts that are drawn so heavily Republican or heavily Democrat it tends to be the person who wins the primary wins,” Cates said. “There are legislators who are more concerned with winning a primary than a general election. They’re only working to appease or appeal to a limited number of people.”

Right now, the party in control decides what district maps look like.

That could change in a few years but only for statehouse – not congressional – races in Ohio. Last year, voters approved a new rule that requires a bipartisan commission to approve how statehouse districts are drawn.

Still, Democrats will be at a disadvantage in Ohio for a long time, Niven suspects. Few rising stars in the Democratic Party want to risk running in statehouse or congressional races, where Republicans are almost guaranteed a win.

And, with so few competitive races to worry about the Ohio Republican Party isn’t forced into spending a ton of money on campaigns. Instead, the party has the luxury of dumping cash into local races, like Dennis Deters' bid for Hamilton County commissioner.

“When you have a built-in advantage, you not only get better candidates, you have a fundraising advantage,” Niven said. “It gets to a point where they can almost spend money for fun.”