The Democrats’ call for change has echoed loudly across Ohio as voters savaged Republicans for the war in Iraq, corruption and just about everything else that’s gone wrong inside and outside the state since 2004.
Widespread disillusionment helped make this bellwether state, which lifted George W. Bush to victory two years ago, a microcosm of the problems facing Republicans across the United States.
The Democrats grabbed a Senate seat, the governor’s mansion and appeared on a course to pick up at least one seat in the House of Representatives from Republicans, who have virtually owned this state for more than a decade.
Sherrod Brown, a veteran state politician, defeated incumbent Senator Mike DeWine, who had been in the Senate since 1994.
Ted Strickland, a former U.S. congressman, became the first Democrat to become governor in 16 years, easily beating Republican Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary of state.
“Ohio is Middle America, and the mood of Ohioans is pretty reflective of what’s happening nationally,” said Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and a long-time observer of the state’s politics.
People in Ohio are angry about the war in Iraq, they’re scandal-weary and they’re ready to put someone else in charge after years of Republican rule – in Washington and in state politics, Prof. Vedder said.
“Republicans have ruled everything for the past 12 years,” including both U.S. Senate seats, a majority of U.S. House seats, the state house and the Ohio governorship, he added. “That leads to the sentiment that it’s time for a change.”
Ohio was supposed to be the battleground of 2004 – a squeaker like Florida was in 2000. It wasn’t that close. Mr. Bush won re-election there, propelling him to victory across the country, as Republicans made big gains in the House and the Senate.
“2004 came too soon for the Democrats,” explained Joseph White, director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Democrats were disillusioned, but Republicans and independents still felt the country was on the right course in Iraq, he said.
“Now, there’s a very negative view of what’s going on,” Mr. White added. “There’s a loss of hope that wasn’t there in 2004.”
Ohio has experienced more than its fair share of everything that is hurting the Republicans – more political scandals, more Iraq casualties and more factory layoffs. Long-time Republican governor Bob Taft, the great-grandson of former U.S. president William Howard Taft, has pleaded guilty to ethics charges. The state’s best-known federal politician, former Republican congressman Bob Ney, is headed to jail on bribery charges. Normally safe Republican seats everywhere faced an assault by a parade of Democratic unknowns.
“It’s hard to imagine a worse set of circumstances for an incumbent party,” Mr. White said. “If the out party can’t win under these conditions, you have to wonder about the political system.”
The war in Iraq has hit home harder in Ohio than in many other states. The state has suffered a disproportionately high share of deaths in Iraq – 128 – ranking it fourth among all states.
For many Ohioans, the tragic story of Lima Company, an Ohio-based group of Marine reservists, has come to symbolize the futility and savagery of the Iraq war. During a single day of combat in Oct. 23, 2005, 14 members of the 160-member company were killed. Another 17 were so badly injured they had to be sent home.
“There’s widespread disillusionment over Iraq,” Prof. Vedder said. “People are asking: ‘Why are we there? Why are we losing so many lives?’ “
The sense of malaise was made worse as Ohio has struggled to keep pace with the economic boom in much of the rest of the country.
The state has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs – a fifth of its total – in the past five years. Its unemployment rate is significantly higher than the national average, and young people continue to leave the state in droves.
Ohio is often described as a swing state. But for the past decade, it has been staunchly Republican. Over that time, the party has developed a formidable machine that has controlled every facet of politics in the state, carefully redrawing boundaries to favour Republican candidates.