Sabatos Crystal Ball

Ratings Upgrades for Democrats in Ohio

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 13th, 2018

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Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate and gubernatorial ratings changes

Senator Old Rating New Rating
Sherrod Brown (D-OH) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic

Governor Old Rating New Rating
OH Open (Kasich, R) Leans Republican Toss-up

A confluence of recent polls and reporting suggests that Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is not really among the top Republican Senate targets this year. Those indicators include:

— Recent nonpartisan polls from the Cincinnati Enquirer/Suffolk University, Fallon Research for the 1984 Society (an Ohio political group connected to Republican lobbyist Neil Clark), and Quinnipiac University showing Brown leading Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16) in the Senate contest by 16 points (53%-37%), 14 points (48%-34%), and 17 points (51%-34%) respectively.

— Senate Majority PAC, the major Democratic outside Senate spending group, leaving Ohio off its initial $80 million round of television reservations, perhaps indicating confidence about Brown’s position (although reservations can of course be added later).

— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) not listing Ohio among the nine most competitive Senate races in a conversation with the Washington Post before Memorial Day. He instead named the exact same nine states where Senate Majority PAC would book television time, although he later argued to The Hill that Ohio was indeed in play and “very competitive,” citing otherwise unspecified internal polling. We personally have not heard much optimism about the Ohio Senate race from our GOP sources throughout this cycle.

Taking all of these indicators together suggests to us that Brown is in a relatively strong position in a state that seems to be trending Republican but where Brown appears to retain good numbers. That Brown is over 50%, or close to it, in polling is also a positive sign for the incumbent because in what is shaping up to be at least a modestly strong Democratic year, he may be insulated from losing even if undecideds break disproportionately to the lesser-known Renacci. Moreover, one probably would not expect a massive, late break to Republican candidates nationally unless the national environment changes dramatically.

We’re moving Ohio’s Senate race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic. That leaves open the possibility of a GOP upset, but for now Brown appears to be in decent shape. He joins Democratic Senate incumbents in bluer states in that category: Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Bob Casey (D-PA).

The Senate action is increasingly focused on the nine states alluded to above: Republicans playing defense in Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee, and Democrats playing defense in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

Upgrading Brown’s reelection odds also prompts us to reexamine the open race for Ohio’s governorship, where most view state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) as a small favorite over former state Attorney General Richard Cordray (D),[1] whom DeWine unseated in a close 2010 contest.

The same surveys that show Brown comfortably leading Renacci offer conflicting views of the gubernatorial race, but taken together they point to a close race. Fallon has DeWine up 40%-34%, while Quinnipiac (42%-40%) and Suffolk (43%-36%) show Cordray ahead. DeWine had generally been up by more, and was closer to the magic 50% number, in some earlier looks at the race. The polls suggest Toss-up, our new rating, is a better reflection of the current reality in Ohio.

So too does this basic fact: The Ohio governorship is an open seat in what, again, should be a somewhat pro-Democratic (or anti-Republican) environment, and the last three times the Democrats took over the Ohio governorship from the Republicans, they did so in similar kinds of environments when the governorship was open: 1970, 1982, and 2006, all midterms under Republican presidents. We were giving DeWine the benefit of the doubt because of his better name ID and likely resource advantage in the fall (he had substantially more cash on hand as of the most recent campaign finance reports and can self-fund). The latter advantage in terms of money remains even though Cordray is also a good fundraiser, but whatever benefits DeWine accrued from the former (name ID) seem to have evaporated after what was a convincing but expensive and nasty primary victory over Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R).

DeWine remains a formidable GOP candidate in a state that more often than not prefers GOP governance, but he has his work cut out for him in what may be a challenging environment.

In an Ohio primary preview we published in early May that also looked at the likely DeWine-Cordray and Brown-Renacci matchups, we hinted at the possibility of these ratings changes in the state’s top two races. Subsequent polling and other developments prompted us to go ahead with them.

We’ll get a sense of how that environment may be playing out in Ohio in early August, when Republicans will be defending the open OH-12 U.S. House seat in a special election. We have the traditionally Republican district that Trump carried by 11 points rated as Leans Republican, and a Monmouth University poll suggested an early GOP edge: state Sen. Troy Balderson (R) led Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor (D) by a high single-digit margin according to the poll’s various turnout models. Still, this should end up being a close and competitive race, and outside Republican groups — already accustomed to playing defense on red turf this cycle — are beginning to invest in the district.

Footnotes

1. Kondik worked for Cordray when he was state attorney general from 2009-2010. His book on Ohio presidential elections, The Bellwether, was released in 2016.