Ohio Democrats Count on New Redistricting Rules to Boost Numbers

Several congressional races in Ohio are poised to be competitive in November, but Democrats in the state are looking ahead to redistricting under new rules to expand their numbers in the next decade.

The new system would give Democrats a greater say in how congressional maps are drawn for the 2022 election and potentially even out a delegation where Republicans hold 75% of Ohio’s House seats even though they garnered just over half the vote in 2018. The state — whose primary scheduled for Tuesday was postponed due to the coronavirus — has a number of strangely drawn districts including the 9th, sometimes called “snake by the lake” because it’s a thin stretch of land hugging Lake Erie that runs along the tops of seven other districts.

“Ohio is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country,” said Katy Shanahan, the Ohio director for All on the Line, the advocacy arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “I will die on the hill that Ohio is very much still a purple battleground state. The problem is that our district lines, both at the state legislative and congressional level, make us look like we’re way more red than we actually are.”

Democrats failed to flip six Republican-held seats in Ohio in 2018, among them the first district encompassing most of Cincinnati represented by Rep. Steve Chabot and the 12th District in the suburbs of Columbus where Rep. Pat Tiberi retired. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed all of the Democratic nominees in those races as part of its Red-to-Blue program.

(Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg)
Rep. Steve Chabot

This year, the DCCC has targeted Chabot’s district and one represented by Rep. Troy Balderson who won Tiberi’s seat. Both Republicans won in 2018 by less than 5 percentage points and include suburban areas, said DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Guggenheimer.

“Republicans like Steve Chabot have only doubled down on this toxic agenda and suburban voters recognize that Democrats are, in fact, in line with their priorities like passing legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs and taking on Washington special interests,” Guggenheimer said in a statement.

‘Best Shot’

President Donald Trump won the state by 8 percentage points in 2016. Recent polls suggest a closer presidential race there this year. Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist in Ohio, said Democrats will have a harder time picking up seats this year than in 2018.

“2018 was the best shot for the Democrats because of the historical advantage of the party not in the White House,” he said. “Now the undertone is flowing in the other direction. Donald Trump will win Ohio by a comfortable margin and that will make it difficult for Democrat challengers to win in any Ohio congressional district.”

Although it’s unlikely Democrats will control either of the state legislature’s chambers in 2020, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has targeted Ohio in hopes the new rules will ensure that the ratio of seats will more closely mirror the statewide vote.

Shanahan said the committee will promote voter engagement in designing the new map, such as pushing for more public hearings than the minimum of three required in the law.

Under the new rules 60% of the Ohio legislature, including support from half of the minority party, can approve a 10-year map. If they can’t agree, a seven-member redistricting commission that has at least two members from the minority party tries to draft a map. If the commission fails, the legislature gets a second chance at drawing the -map, this time needing the support of only a third of the minority to support it. If all that fails, lawmakers can approve a four-year map with a simple majority, but the plan expires after four years and is limited in how it can split counties, townships and other municipalities.

While suburban areas might have trended more blue in recent elections, Ohio as a whole is still a safe bet for Republicans, Weaver said. Only one Democrat – Sen. Sherrod Brown – has won statewide since 2009, and blue-collar Rust Belt workers have moved toward Trump, he said.

“You’d see blue streaks all along the shore of Lake Erie and then see blue all down the eastern edge of the state,” he said. “The industrial areas along the Lake Erie shoreline of the north and heavy industry areas along the eastern border have turned red.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com