By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS — The low point for Ohio’s Democratic Party was supposed to be 1994.
That’s when Republicans won the governor’s mansion, swept every statewide nonjudicial race, and wrested away a Senate seat held for decades by a popular Democrat.
This year was supposed to be a step back in the right direction.
But instead, look what happened Tuesday: Republicans won the governor’s mansion, swept every statewide nonjudicial race, and wrested away a Senate seat held for decades by a popular Democrat.
Only Supreme Court Justice Francis Sweeney won a statewide race for the Democrats, who face four more years of Republican domination in state government. Party leaders will try to rethink their strategies in order to fight again in 2000.
Some Democrats were just plain embarrassed at the polls. The candidates for attorney general and auditor lost by more than 1.5 million votes. And in the two races Democrats felt they had a decent chance of winning – for governor and treasurer – Republicans had an unexpectedly easy time.
“We never had a strong message,” said Jim Ruvulo, a former state and Lucas County Demo cratic chairman.
“I’m absolutely befuddled,” said Paul Tipps, another former state party chairman. “I think they’ve got to go back to basics and start from there. They’ve got to figure out what the Republicans are doing that they aren’t.”
Mr. Ruvulo said the problems for the Democrats started at the top of the ticket, where Mr. Fisher and Mr. Taft started mudslinging in negative ads as far back as September.
“When you’ve got two candidates who don’t have great name recognition, and they start negative that early, they don’t attract people. They repel people,” he said. “They drive people to the sidelines, and Democrats can’t win with people on the sidelines.”
Turnout in Ohio was lower than expected, at only 48.1 per cent of registered voters.
The sweep is particularly disturbing to Ohio Democrats, considering that Tuesday was a good day for Democrats in other states around the country.
For decades, the party that controls the presidency has always lost seats in the midterm election. But even with the spectre of impeachment looming over President Clinton, Democrats nationwide still picked up seats in the House, not to mention key races like the California governor and New York’s Senate seat.
“We’re disappointed,” said state party chairman David Leland. “We took huge hits in 1990 and in 1994, and we’re still coming back.”
Mr. Ruvulo pinned the blame on the party’s lack of a strong message. Democratic candidates were too cautious, he said, and avoided issues that matter to voters, like education, which has dominated the state’s political discourse for the last two years.
“Education was off the table, and we should have been talking about it,” Mr. Ruvolo said. “As the party out of power, you can’t play it safe and win.”
Democrats, he said, should spend the next two years doing research to find out the topics that truly matter to their voters, and “put together a coherent, strong message. Not just mouthing the phrase `working families’ over and over ad nauseum.”
But Mr. Tipps said there just weren’t many solid statewide issues for Democrats to use this year. The economy is strong, and the health care issue was co-opted by Mr. Taft’s support for a patient’s bill of rights.
The school funding issue, he said, is too tied up in the state’s courts for either side to make much hay. He uses a basketball metaphor: “If the referee’s got the ball, neither side can score.”
Mr. Leland’s contract as chairman extends to May, 2000, and he said he expects to serve out his term, despite rumors that he might be ousted. Mr. Tipps said that a leadership change now would be missing the point.
“This is a serious foundation problem,” Mr. Tipps said. “They’ve got to figure out why the Democratic Party in Ohio is not communicating with the public. It’s not about personalities.”
Mr. Leland said there would be no radical changes in strategy or tactics. “We’ve got to do what we’ve always done,” he said. “This is just one battle. We’ve got to continue the fight.”