Anna Staver The Columbus Dispatch
Voting concludes Tuesday on more than 100 Statehouse races, and while it’s unlikely Republicans will lose their majorities in the Ohio House and Senate, how close Democrats come — even in the early results — could give us clues about who might be the next president of the United States.
The suburbs surrounding Columbus are home to some of the most competitive legislative races in Ohio, and they’re where Democrat Joe Biden needs to outperform President Donald Trump.
One race to watch is between Hilliard Republican Sen. Stephanie Kunze and her Democratic challenger, Crystal Lett, in Senate District 16. Democrats haven’t held the seat since the 1980s, but the district went for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray in 2018.
“I think the Trump/Biden vote is important there,” said Rachel Coyle, the campaign director for Ohio Senate Democrats. “If Biden is up by 10 points, that should bode well for Lett.”
Within the borders of that Senate seat are three House seats held by two Democrats (Reps. Beth Liston and Allison Russo) and one Republican (Rep. Laura Lanese).
Coyle and her counterpart, Ohio House Democratic Caucus Director Aryeh Alex, expect Lanese’s race to be tight and not just because of the shifting suburban demographics.
Voters, Coyle said, know a surprising amount about the nuclear bailout scandal surrounding former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford.
“It’s shocking in the Franklin County area how many people know that name and have a poor opinion of him,” Coyle said.
Ohio’s suburbs might get a little bluer each year, but its less populated districts are growing redder.
In 2016, those shifting demographics cost Democrat Lou Gentile his eastern Ohio Senate seat. In 2020, Republican Senate President Larry Obhof says northeastern Ohio Democrats could find themselves in the same position.
Democrats have held House District 99, which follows Lake Erie’s shoreline east of Cleveland and includes Ashtabula, for most of Obhof’s life.
“I think Sara Fowler (the Republican) is probably going to win that seat, maybe by double digits,” Obhof said. “There are probably going to be a few other districts like that.”
Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, also could be in trouble, Obhof said.
O’Brien won his seat in 2016 even though Trump carried that part of Ohio, but it’s possible the president’s coattails extend further now. Voters might be less inclined to split their ballots this year. If Trump runs away with the Mahoning Valley on election night, Obhof said he thinks O’Brien could find himself in the same predicament Gentile did four years earlier.
Butler County Democrats haven’t held a seat in the state legislature in 50 years, but Kathy Wyenandt says she could break the Republican winning streak. She’s taking on Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester, for an open seat in the Ohio Senate.
Sen. Bill Coley (who is term-limited) won the seat by 36 points in 2016, but Wyenandt raised a surprising amount of money.
“She’s the only candidate on TV in that race,” Coyle said.
Another factor working in Wyenandt’s favor this year is a conservative write-in campaign. Kent Keller, the husband of outgoing GOP Rep. Candice Keller, is asking Republicans to choose him over Lang.
It’s the best chance Democrats have had in a long time, Coyle said. Still, a Wyenandt win on election night could mean both Biden and the Democrats won Ohio in a landslide.
In the Ohio House, Republican Rep. Tom Brinkman and his Democratic challenger, Sara Bitter, are fighting for control of a Hamilton County seat.
Party affiliation, which once favored Republicans, is now about even in these Cincinnati suburbs. And the GOP spent money on a series of attack ads even though Brinkman coasted to victory in previous elections.
A strong performance by Biden on election night could spell trouble for Brinkman.
The results in other legislative races also could provide clues about which presidential candidate is likely to win Ohio.
Take state Rep. Kris Jordan’s race in Delaware County, for example. If his Democratic challenger leads in the early results, that would be a big, blinking sign to Alex that Biden is on track to carry the Buckeye State.
Up in Erie County, he plans to watch whether Alexis Miller comes close to unseating Republican Rep. DJ Swearingen in House District 89. Voters in the Lucas County part of that district picked President Barak Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
“If we are close in those races in the early vote, I think that is a very good sign for Biden even if our local candidate isn’t winning,” Alex said. “If we are winning or competing heavily in those races, it’s a blowout year for us.”
Coyle agreed. She’s keeping her eye on the overlapping race between Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, and Democrat Joel O’Dorisio.
“Trump has been up there a lot and his family has been there too,” she said. “If that race is close, Democrats statewide are having a good night.”
On the flip side, if Democrats struggle to hold the suburban seats they flipped in 2018 like Russo’s and Rep. Casey Weinstein’s over in Summit County, it could spell trouble for the party up and down the ticket.
“If the Republicans in those districts are doing well, I think it means Trump is on his way to an 8-point victory again,” Obhof said.
More than 2 million Ohioans had cast their vote for the 2020 election a week before Election Day, according to the secretary of state’s office. That’s already more than the total number of early votes cast in 2016.
So, what does that mean for Statehouse races?
It means we should have results for most races fairly quickly on election night. Ohio permits country boards of election to process — but not tabulate — these ballots ahead of time. Still, more than 840,000 absentee ballots remain outstanding, and it’s unknown how many people will vote on Election Day.
However, mail ballots postmarked by Monday that arrive by Nov. 13, as well as provisional ballots cast Election Day, could prove decisive in some races.
“I think that some of the early data for a lot of races you will see big leads for one party that won’t hold very long,” Obhof said. “I would say to everybody: Get a cup of coffee, sit down and relax for an hour until more data comes in.”
Alex agreed: “Early vote returns may be skewed, and the results will probably tighten. If the first results come in and they’re close, I think it’s going to be a very tight night and we’re going to be up late.”