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State Lawmakers’ Races Getting Close And Creative

Ohio statehouse
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
All 99 members of the Ohio House and 17 state senators are on the ballot for the November election.

While the candidates for governor and US Senator are getting most of the spotlight in this year’s election, all 99 members of the Ohio House and 17 state senators are also on the ballot.  And with a new governor in January, those state lawmakers will play important roles. 

But it's a tough year for a candidate not running for a marquee office to get attention, especially for Democrats, who’ve been in the minority in the Statehouse for years. 

For instance, there’s a video that parodies the movie “Ghostbusters” from political newcomer Cory Hoffman, a Democrat running for a House seat in conservative Delaware County against Kris Jordan, a term-limited Republican Senator. Another candidate with a classically Democratic name – John Kennedy – ran 142 miles from his home in Aurora to the Statehouse this summer. But his chances to win are slim against Republican incumbent Sarah Latourette, daughter of the late longtime Congressman Steve Latourette.  And there are five central Ohio mothers from a variety of professional backgrounds running in different districts but as a team called Ohio Women Lead, combining their networks and even sharing signs and a campaign video.

But the basic tools of campaigning are still raising money and walking neighborhoods to meet potential voters. And Aaron Fisher of the Ohio House Democratic Caucus says his candidates are going on the offensive for the first time in a while.

“We're talking about health care, we're talking about education. We are really holding Republicans to account for what's happened both in the state of Ohio and nationally. And those are the issues that those voters care most about. You know, in cycles past we've also often found ourselves playing defense. It feels nice to actually feel like we're leading the message here and most of these districts.”

To take control of the Ohio House from the Republican supermajority, Democrats would need to keep the 33 seats they have and flip 17 more. That’s a tall order, but some polling has shown that suburban districts that had been Republican in the last few cycles may be tipping toward Democrats – including the districts featuring the Ohio Women Lead candidates. “Suburban races are especially tough this time around,” says Brad Miller with OHROC, the campaign arm of the Ohio House Republicans.

Miller says OHROC’s candidates, who are incumbents, are doing the same fundraising and door knocking, and that the candidates and gubernatorial nominee Mike DeWine are a team. But though President Trump won Ohio by 8 points two years ago, the strategy isn’t always to tie the candidates to him.  “That can depend on the district – I think especially with President Trump. They're definitely running alongside Mike DeWine and the other statewide candidates. In fact, a lot of times we try to coordinate some of the major events where one of our candidates will go knocking on doors with Mike DeWine himself.”

OHROC is running positive ads like this for Rep. Dave Greenspan in a suburban Cleveland race against Democratic newcomer Cassimir Svigelj. And there are some harder edged ones, like this for Rep. Steve Arndt of Port Clinton, whose Democratic opponent Joe Helle was prominently featured in coverage of the US Supreme Court case involving Ohio’s voter roll maintenance.

But the strategy can be a challenge. Eric Yassenoff of Upper Arlington is facing one of the Ohio Women Lead candidates, Allison Russo. The Ohio Republican Party sent some direct mail supporting candidates including Yassenoff – and blaming Democrats including Russo for the state’s past economic struggles. Both Yassenoff and Russo have never held office. Yassenoff posted on Facebook his letter to party chair Jane Timken expressing his disappointment in the mailer. “Since day one I've ran a positive policy focused campaign and I felt like this was the right thing to do. It's all about talking about issues. It's about talking about solutions to our problems and that's where I'm trying to keep the focus,” said Yassenoff.

And there’s a battle ahead for speaker among Republicans, who are likely to keep control of the House. It took 11 rounds of voting in June for Ryan Smith to be elected to replace former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger. That was a public display of what had been a private power struggle between Smith and former Speaker Larry Householder, who wants that job again.  But nearly all of the candidates Householder backed in the primary – sometimes against candidates who supported Smith –  are in tough races now.

No matter what happens with the House, there’s virtually no chance that Democrats could seize control of the Ohio Senate, where they’d need to keep the nine seats they have and flip 8 more in a chamber that’s been led by Republicans since 1985.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.
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