Skip to comments.Dixie North?
Posted on 07/14/2003 1:37:46 PM PDT by William McKinley
While political analysts read the tealeaves of the 2002 midterm elections, there seems to be an emerging consensus that the South has solidified its position as the base of the Republican Party. Although the 1998 midterm elections, according to New York Times reporters David Halbfinger and Jim Yardley, had given Democrats great expectations that the GOP domination of Dixie might be reversed, upset senatorial and gubernatorial victories in Georgia and the rout of the Democrats in Texas brought a crash of ruin.
Several years ago journalist John Judis had predicted, with great horror, that what he saw as the retrograde conservatism and purported racism of the Republican South would infect the North. Judis fear was not all that novel since Wilbur Cash had warned of the Dixie-cation of the North back in the 1930s. Even though southerners of the New Deal era were ardent Democrats, their racial conservatism and hostility to organized labor were the nightmares of so-called northern progressives.
In all these discussions of the Dixie, whether recent or of an older vintage, I have been waiting for someone to discuss my favorite southern state: Ohio. Yes, Ohio. And I recommend a little more attention to this state not just because I live here, but also for what the developments over the past decade say about the future of the national GOP.
Why do I say Ohio is southern, other than the fact that if you were to extend the Mason-Dixon line westward a good chunk of the state would fall below it? For starters, Virginians settled southern Ohio and its founding political, commercial, and military leaders were southern. A Virginian founded Lancaster, Ohio, home of General William Sherman, in 1800. Lancasters state representative during the Civil War was an ardent antiwar Democrat who ended up in a federal prison for preaching draft resistance and opposition to the emancipation of slaves. During the 1863 gubernatorial election, the pro-southern Democratic candidate, Clement Vallandigham, who had been imprisoned and then exiled, carried Shermans home county and scored well in the southern tier of the state.
If one wanted to find abolitionist Republicans then a trip to northern Ohio and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) was necessary. Beyond abolitionists who thought Sherman was a wimp, visitors would have also discovered neatly laid out communities created by Yankees in New England style.
Although party allegiances between northern and southern Ohio switched by the era of the New Deal, the fundamental demographic, cultural, and ideological cleavages remained unchanged. Ohios New Deal Democrats built a bare majority largely on the basis of minorities in northern tier industrial centers.
At the very center of the Democratic Party stood Cuyahoga County and a population of working-class Roman Catholics, blacks, Jews, and union (CIO) stalwarts. To carry Ohio, Democratic statewide and presidential candidates usually had to capture at least 60 percent of Cleveland and pick up a few additional votes in Akron, Toledo, and Youngstown.
The Ohio Republican Party remained competitive throughout the 1930s and returned to statewide power by 1938, as symbolized by the elevation of Mr. Republican, Robert A. Taft of Cincinnati, to the U.S. Senate. Columbus, the state capital, was a growing city with a Republican majority overseen by Mayor (later Governor) James Rhodes. Columbus and Franklin County were not CIO bastions.
Moreover, Columbus, again in contrast to Cleveland, had not attracted a large Catholic, Jewish, and black population. Its residents came from the small towns of the states southern tier and from the conservative Protestant hamlets of Kentucky and West Virginia. Indeed, so strong were Franklin Countys ties to its southern neighbors, that Kentucky-born, Columbus-bred, singer Dwight Yokum wrote a ballad about this often overlooked internal migration to the Buckeye capital.
Being a majority made up of minorities, Ohio Democrats could not afford any voter defections in Cuyahoga County. If 40,000 Cleveland blacks failed to vote, Democrats risked losing U.S. Senate seats and the gubernatorial chair, and their presidential candidates might then fall short of the White House. Cleveland and its hinterland were all.
This longwinded back-story takes me to the present. In the decade of the 1990s something dramatic and mainly unnoticed happened in Ohio. Metro Cleveland lost hundreds of thousands of people and metro Columbus gained in equal proportion. The population gap between the two counties narrowed and the prospects of the state Democratic Party worsened.
What did Ohio Democrats do about the growing clout of central-southern Ohio? Instead of trying to reach out beyond the northern tier of the state and build upon a shrinking cadre of conservative southern Democrats, they attached themselves ever more tightly to their crumbling northern base. The past three unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been men of the north.
Their most recent sacrificewhat with the lack of candidates holding state office--was a former Cuyahoga County commissioner, Tim Hagan. It was thought that Hagans chief asset was his wife, actress Kate Mulgrew, who starred in the least successful of the Star Trek television franchises. Surely she could bring in Hollywood money for her husbands campaign. And yet, even running against one of the most colorless Republican politicians in decades, the Democrats could only score 39 percent of the gubernatorial vote against Bob Taft. (The grandson of Senator Robert Taft, Governor Taft does not use his given name. An old joke that might explain why this is goes like this: in an era when politicians became known by their initialsFDR, JFK, LBJno one named Robert A. Taft was going to win the White House.)
If this sounds incredible, it is not without precedent. The Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000 spent little time in Columbus. I recalled Joseph Lieberman spending 45 minutes in Franklin County at a fundraiser. Some Central Ohio Democratic volunteersa few of my students--complained that Gore was spending too much time in Cleveland. They understood that the locus of electoral power in Ohio had shifted. Gore narrowly lost Ohio. I expect a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 will lose Ohio by a much wider margin. (But then, a lot could happen to wreck that prediction.)
Who are the Ohio Republicans? Of course, there is the base of Appalachian Protestants who remain suspicious of organized labor, resent welfare, and oppose tax hikes. But there is more at work here than just that. Ohio on closer inspection is not quite Dixie.
At one point in the mid-1990s if you looked around Columbus you could have found a Republican governor (from Cleveland!), a mayor, and a nationally known U.S. Representative (John Kasich), with glaringly Eastern European surnames and blue-collar origins that would have made them genetically Democratic 60 years ago. The Democratic base, even in its Cleveland bastion, was experiencing painful defections.
In 2002, Ohio Republicans marked their tenth year of control over the governors office, the state house, and the state senate. This year the GOP solidified its control of states congressional delegation 12 to 6 and the Ohio Supreme Court became Republican. (Youngstown Democratic congressman James Traficant is no longer with us. He was the last Democratic office holder in Ohio who had statewide name recognition. Bless him; it appears that even from an out-of-state prison Traficant still won 15 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate.)
Although feminists elsewhere might cheer that the majority of the state courts members are women, they would be less joyful to hear that at least two of the new female judges are not progressives. Newly elected justice Maureen OConnor, who had been the lieutenant governor, pledged that the era of judicial activism in the state was over. She was undoubtedly in part referring to an earlier state supreme court ruling that had thrown out the property tax funding basis of public schools and had mandated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending. While the court had backed down a little from its ruling, I expect even the watered-down ruling to become a dead letter, especially with the state facing a $4 billion deficit.
I have not seen the bi-coastal media note that Ohios new Republican lieutenant governor is a black woman or that the black secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, is a GOP movement activist and protégé of Jack Kemp. Blackwell is well positioned to claim higher elective, though with complete domination of every single state office by Republicans, there are no shortage of rival claimants. And by the way, one of the nice things about Ohio is that no one made an issue about Lt. Governor-elect Jennette Bradley being black. I am thinking, of course, of what happened in Maryland where Democratic activists followed the black Republican lieutenant gubernatorial candidate around passing out Oreo cookies.
So, is Ohio southern? Yes, to the extent that the state has southern demographics and beliefs that certainly differentiates it from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois where the Democrats recaptured their governorships. But there are also enough indications that Ohio Republicans have made serious inroads into the northern Democratic base.
Is Ohio a potential model for George W. Bush and a national GOP seeking a sturdy majority? Yes, and, no one pays me to make political strategy. My only concern is that whether on the state or national level, Republicans not forget those left behind by a changing economy. Very little news from the northern tier of Ohio penetrates into the central and southern portions of the state. Complaints about job-destroying steel imports and urban decay from Cleveland country seem otherworldly in this land of milk and honey. Some central Ohioans might rightly note that such complaints have been heard for the past 25 years; it is time for them to move on. Moving on, though, is not always as easy as it sounds. Northern Ohio Democrats need compassionate conservative intervention. Perhaps in that Ohio could become a model for the national and Dixie GOP.
Dennis "the Menace" Kucinich. And Marcy Kaptur is going big-time now, too.
Look out for congressman Tim Ryan, too, in the future . . .