A transformative 2022 election appears unlikely in Ohio

With Election Day looming on Tuesday, it’s fair to question if the Republican-driven political rot in the state runs too deep to be uprooted this year.
Tim Ryan speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Tim Ryan speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Gage Skidmore

It seems like every election these days is referred to as "the most important election of our lifetime." 

While that can't be true every single time out, I understand why the phrase has become so common. We live in a pretty fraught and polarized political climate. The issues with which our legislators, governors, presidents and courts are grappling are serious ones. Enormous ones, in fact, going to the very heart of our personal freedoms, the very existence of democracy and, in some instances, the continued habitability of the planet. 

Still, I have a hard time saying that 2022 is the most important election of Ohioans' lifetimes. This is not because those critically important issues are not on the table here – they absolutely are – but because the specific circumstances of this election strongly suggest that nothing in Ohio is going to change in its wake.  

Certainly nothing will change in the legislature, as years of Republican gerrymandering – this year illegal Republican gerrymandering that has somehow been allowed to stand – have made it impossible for Democrats to make anything approaching serious headway toward gaining even a shred of power. There is at least some hope that Democratic Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner can become the next Chief Justice, but given that Ohio Republicans have learned that they can simply ignore Supreme Court rulings with which they disagree and suffer no consequences whatsoever for doing so, a Brunner win won't do much to move the needle.

A new governor would make a big difference in this state, obviously, but Gov. Mike DeWine enjoys a double-digit lead in his race against Democratic challenger Nan Whaley. On the surface it seems odd, given the state of polarization today, that any candidate could outperform the state's overall partisan breakdown the way the incumbent governor is doing. But the DeWine brand is a strong one, and a great many people, be they Republicans or Democrats, view him as some sort of bulwark of reason against the right-wing lunatics in the legislature, even if there is very little evidence upon which to base such a belief.

DeWine has signed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Yet Whaley, who has centered her entire campaign on the future of legal abortion in Ohio, which polls favorably overall, has made no headway. This suggests that Ohio voters either aren't particularly animated by that issue or simply prefer to place an X next to the familiar DeWine name. Whatever the case, a strong preference for the status quo is not usually something one sees in a putatively transformative election.  

Finally, the big one: the Senate race between Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance. This one, at least on the surface, seems pretty damn important. This election, thanks to Ryan's surprisingly effective campaign and Vance, welp, being Vance, gives Democrats a chance to pick up a seat and, they hope, retain control of the Senate. Given the amount of power that flows to the party that controls that body, a Ryan victory would be significant. There are, however, limits to how significant such a victory would be.

I say this is mostly because, if Ryan wins, it will be a victory born of a campaign in which he has actively sought out Republican votes by engaging in some truly egregious Sinophobia. Ryan has also consistently touted the things upon which he and former President Donald Trump agree while distancing himself from President Joe Biden and the Democratic agenda as a whole. In light of that, it's not hard to imagine Ryan, if he wins, becoming Ohio's version of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. That would be good for Democrats in certain key, organizational respects, but Ryan seems unlikely to do or support things that would help advance their larger agenda and, on some issues, could prove to be an annoying obstacle. 

Of course, anything Ryan does would be preferable to anything a Sen. Vance would do. But apart from embarrass Ohio with obnoxious statements in the manner in which he has already become a master, Sen. Vance would likely vote in identical fashion to the way outgoing Republican Sen. Rob Portman has in his two terms. Form-wise, we'd be far worse off, but substance-wise, nothing would truly change. 

None of this should be viewed as an excuse not to vote, of course. One should always vote, and one should always do whatever one can in order to help usher in a brighter, more just and more equitable future.

It seems highly unlikely, however, that any even remotely likely outcome of the 2022 election will do much to change Ohio's politics or its policies. The rot is too deeply ingrained, and there is a severe shortage of people who either stand a chance of winning an office from which they could dislodge it, or who seem willing to dislodge it even in the event they win.

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