LIMA — This past year, Joe Monbeck lost his race for the 84th Ohio House District. He wasn’t facing an incumbent nor an established name. As a political newcomer, he was challenging another newcomer.
Even so, his chances of winning were about zero. Monbeck is a Democrat.
“Nobody is surprised that a Republican won the district,” Monbeck said. “I threw my name in the hat because I think it’s too important to let people just have it.”
By demographic, cultural and voting patterns, it’s hard to find a more conservative place than northwest Ohio. Throughout the decades, the ideals central to the Republican Party — those of faith, freedom and family — have shaped many of its institutions.
But as the political climate ebbs and flows, many of today’s Democrats see an opportunity in the chaos to break down the long-standing trenches.
Rural versus urban
The voting pattern of urban versus rural voters is a well-documented one. Cities — full of younger individuals holding college degrees — lean left. Rural areas — full of older, working-class individuals — lean right.
The same trend can be seen in Ohio. A total of 31 out of 88 counties in Ohio (including Allen, Hancock, Hardin, Mercer and Van Wert) are completely Republican controlled. In comparison, 15 of the largest 20 cities in Ohio have Democratic mayors.
But rust-belt cities like Lima don’t always fall along such straight lines. Part of that is by design. Lima’s city charter requires all local races to be nonpartisan in nature. “D”s and “R”s aren’t even allowed on the ballot.
As a result, local city politics can be a little more complicated as races are meant to be nonpartisan in nature. And so as the local Republican Party solidifies its coalition on the county level, there’s little strength to be grabbed by the local Democratic Party as most of the left-leaning political resources normally used to combat conservative gains have been used by “nonpartisan” city races.
That can be seen with Mayor David Berger’s own political coalition which he initially formed back in 1989 and consisted of both Republicans and Democrats at the time. Berger, a registered Democrat, often stumps for Democratic issues and sometimes publicly supports Democratic candidates.
A number of registered Democrats also sit on Lima City Council. In fact, the 2019 election pushed council to the left as two registered Democrats, Peggy Ehora and Tony Wilkerson, ended up replacing two registered Republicans, Rebecca Kreher and Sam McLean.
Actual political candidates willing to run with a Democratic affiliation, however, are few and far between.
“We’ve gotten to a point in Allen County where qualified people don’t want to take the time or spend their money, or other people’s money, when they think it’s a hopeless cause,” Allen County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rex said. “It’s frustrating to look at the ballot and see there’s little to no competition here. I talk to a lot of people, trying to get them to run.”
Ohio Libertarian Party Chair Harold Thomas said the third party has seen similar struggles in pulling together grassroots resources when the majority holds such a heavy sway. In the libertarians’ case, neither Democrats or Republicans are innocent of limiting political competition.
“People are interested in politics, but they aren’t interested in the grassroots work to make the political system work. It’s for understandable reasons. People have other commitments,” Thomas said.
In comparison, Allen County Republican Party Chairman Keith Cheney said he didn’t want to “give away the playbook” when it comes to picking candidates, but quality is high on the list of characteristics that they look for.
“I think it comes down to the quality and qualifications of the individuals,” Cheney said. “We are certainly fortunate to have the county officials that we have.”
Those who do end up running as opposing parties — those like Monbeck — often do so just to be heard and to find like-minded people in order to drum up support for a future fight.
“It helps elevate the conversation,” Monbeck said.“My opponent was talking about things that she (current state Rep. Susan Manchester) wouldn’t have talked about.”
The view from statewide
After the 2019 election, state Democrats took a victory lap. Kentucky, currently a redder state than Ohio, had chosen a Democratic governor over incumbent Matt Bevin.
During a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper highlighted the role Cincinnati suburbs played in replacing the controversial governor as Trump sentiment has soured in the suburbs. He thinks the same thing can be done in Ohio, and the Ohio Democrats have been sinking funds into digital ads through its “Main Street Initiative” to make gains in such areas.
When asked about flipping rural areas in the 2019 election, Pepper flagged a sentiment that Democratic challengers say they’ve heard from voters.
“Things just aren’t going well here, and people want a change.” Pepper said. “They were tired of not keeping up.”
Similar ideas were found during some exit polling conducted by The Lima News, and it could be argued that some local 2019 election results revolve around the same theme, which made it harder for incumbents to grab a win.
In Auglaize County, Monbeck pointed to the work of independent write-in candidate Brandon Terrill in Wapakoneta, who ended up winning roughly 30% of the vote against incumbent Mayor Tom Stinebaugh as an example. In Allen County, the desire for change could also be seen in the results for Lima City Council President. Ultimately, Incumbent John Nixon won another term, but his challenger Josiah Mathews ended up taking 36% of the vote even after dropping out early and not running any campaign.
“As the outparty, Democrats can serve as the loyal opposition, challenging Republicans on a number of issues, including health care, gun control and economic growth in the state,” Ohio Northern University Political Science Professor Robert Alexander stated in an email.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, the only Democrat to win a statewide ticket in 2018, highlighted his “dignity of work” message as a way to flip some working class voters in 2020.
“It’s also about what (state Republicans) have done in these communities, and it’s not very much. They don’t seem to care,” Brown said. “Republicans in Columbus only care about Lima during election time.”
Locally, Brown had a roughly 16-point smaller vote spread in Allen County than other statewide candidates, meaning some voters opted for him over his Republican challenger. In other words, Democrats have found some success in making headway in the county.
Brown has since encouraged Democratic presidential candidates to incorporate the “dignity of work” message and include progressive labor policies, such as increases in the minimum wage and restoring overtime to salaried workers, in their platforms.
“There’s little interest from investors and the state government to help Lima, and help Ottawa, Van Wert, Paulding, and help Defiance. I find it a bit ironic that this part of Ohio is becoming more and more Republican,” Brown said.
In response, local Republicans have pointed to the economic gains seen under President Donald Trump’s administration as proof of helping the working class.
“I’m concerned about the individuals. Are families better off than they were three years ago? Look at the economy and the unemployment rate (4.1% in Allen County),” Cheney said. “No one can argue with the numbers. Numbers are facts.”
Leaning on results
No matter where someone stands on the political spectrum, it’s hard to argue that today’s political theater is doing much to get anyone to agree on anything as victimhood and outright politic shaming becomes the norm. Taylor has seen such polarization shut down conversations about some libertarian ideas. When one vote strays from the party lines, it’s a win for the other side.
“We all basically want the same thing — good public schools, good streets, very adequate fire and police departments, good drinking water. What we disagree on is how do we fund those,” Rex said. “Now we can’t get down to talking about that because we’re too busy talking to the extremes of the parties.”
As for how the local Republican Party responds to Democratic efforts to gain footing in Allen County, Cheney summed it up pretty well.
“The results speak for themselves.”
It’s up to voters to decide how they feel about that.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.