The Democratic National Committee will host its Ohio debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, just outside Columbus, on Oct. 15 and possibly a second night, using the location to highlight one of the state’s blue-trending suburbs that will be pivotal in the 2020 presidential election.
The DNC’s announcement ended speculation the event might be held in smaller cities, such as Dayton or Youngstown, to draw attention to issues facing those communities. Dayton was the site of a mass shooting last month that renewed a focus on gun control, while Youngstown has been reshaped by manufacturing decline and the closure of the General Motors’ Lordstown Assembly Plant.
But in the end it was Ohio’s capital and largest city that essentially won the draw. Otterbein is a half an hour from downtown Columbus. It’s also where former Republican governor and current CNN commentator John Kasich has an office; Mr. Kasich was named a senior fellow at the small liberal arts college at the end of his term.
The Ohio Democratic Party described Westerville as a suburb that has trended blue over the past six years, using the debate’s location to underscore a trend they hope will keep it competitive in 2020.
“What we’ve seen in the suburbs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and other cities mirrors what has happened in places like Harris County, Texas, and Orange County, California — suburban voters, particularly women, are backing Democratic candidates in response to the broken promises and toxic agenda of Donald Trump,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said.
“Trump is underwater in Ohio — his net approval rating here has dropped 19 percentage points since he took office — and a primary cause is that suburban voters are fleeing the Republican Party in droves.”
On Twitter, some pundits were perplexed by the choice of Westerville.
“Interesting choice by Dems to have the debate in Westerville (northern Columbus suburbs). To be clear, I don’t think debate location matters electorally, but that specific part of the state is an important growth area for Dems if they are to make up their losses elsewhere,” said Cleveland native Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the election forecasting site Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
A memo released by the state party Friday cites declining votes for Republicans in several Ohio suburbs, including Westerville, since 2012.
In the 2018 midterms, Democrats picked up six Ohio House seats in suburban Columbus and northeast Ohio, though the gain did little to dent the GOP’s supermajority in the General Assembly.
The suburban counties that flipped from supporting President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump — the ones where independent voters were swayed to vote for a Republican in 2016 — are mostly clustered in northern Ohio, and include Wood, Ottawa, Erie, and Sandusky counties.
Mr. Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2016, followed by a GOP sweep in the 2018 midterms, leading some observers to question whether Ohio is permanently tinged red.
In a statement, the Ohio Republican Party indicated they don’t view a debate being held in an important swing state as a threat.
“The 2020 Democratic candidates can debate in Ohio all they want, but Ohioans have made it clear that their radical ideas are not welcome here. President Trump’s pro-growth policies have created a booming economy, and in 2016 we flipped traditionally blue counties red. President Trump won Ohio by 8 points and we are still feeling that momentum thanks to the president’s leadership. The Democrats’ radical agendas, policies that will only result in higher taxes on the middle class, simply don’t resonate here.”
The moderators next month are CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett, and New York Times National Editor Marc Lacey. The fourth presidential primary debate is being co-hosted by CNN and The New York Times.