Ohio’s GOP-trending ‘statescape’ would pose challenges for a Gov. Richard Cordray: Thomas Suddes

Ohio’s GOP-trending ‘statescape’ would pose challenges for a Gov. Richard Cordray: Thomas Suddes

Ohio Democrats, and their gubernatorial candidate, got some good news Wednesday: “The Ohio governor’s race is too close to call, with former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, the Democrat, at 42 percent and State Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican, at 40 percent,” the Quinnipiac University Poll reported.

True, it’s early yet, way early. But still, the Cordray-DeWine race for governor of Ohio is competitive.

That has to be a happy turn for Democrats, who’ve only held the governor’s office in four of the last 28 years (Democrat Ted Strickland’s one-term, 2007-10 governorship).

Cordray, unlike Strickland, has had Statehouse experience. Cordray was an Ohio House member, state treasurer and attorney general – until, that is, DeWine unseated Cordray as attorney general in 2010.

Still, what might be called Ohio’s “statescape” has changed since Cordray lost the attorney general’s office to DeWine.

Ohio’s still a competitive state politically (it twice backed Barack Obama). But Ohio appears to be trending Republican.

The Ohio votes that Donald Trump won in what had been Democratic heartwood, such as Trumbull County (Warren), signaled that same old, same old is over. That’d be Challenge No. 1 for Cordray as Democratic governor: building consensus for his agenda.

Then there’s GOP domination of the General Assembly. True, gerrymandered (politically rigged) state Senate and Ohio House districts are part of the reason. But that’s not the whole story.

Republican rule of Ohio’s Senate (for 34 years now) appears to be the longest spell in which one party has run the Senate since the Civil War ended in 1865 – and maybe longer. Likewise, Democrats have only run the Ohio House for two years (2009-10) in the last 24. Challenge No. 2 for Democrat Cordray if he becomes governor: He’ll need the help of Republican legislators to pass priority bills.

There are diligent, focused Democratic legislators. But being part of a legislative minority can be cozy. You aren’t responsible for governing; the majority party does that. All you have to do, as the member of a minority party caucus, is show up for committee hearings and floor votes, keep your nose clean – and collect a nice paycheck and sweet benefits. With all due respect for many committed Republicans, that’s how the House’s GOP caucus sometimes looked during the 22 years (1973-95) it was in the minority – till 1993, when future Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a suburban Columbus Republican, grabbed the House GOP caucus by the scruff of the neck and got it winning. Today, this era’s Statehouse legislative minority – Democrats – looks pretty comfy.

So, come November, whether Democrat Cordray or Republican DeWine becomes Ohio’s governor, the state Senate will remain Republican – as Ohio’s House almost certainly will.

If Cordray becomes governor, Challenge No. 3 will be staffing. During Democrat Vern Riffe’s 1975-94 speakership, and when Democrats ran the Senate (via Northfield’s Oliver Ocasek and Youngstown’s Harry Meshel), Democratic legislative staff formed a farm team for Democrats who won statewide elected executive office. (And even during GOP Gov. James A. Rhodes’s tenure, Riffe seemed to have eyes and ears throughout the executive branch.) Republicans have been in power so long, they have a deep pool of Statehouse talent. Democrats, long in exile, don’t. That’s why, not forgetting many capable appointees, Strickland’s administration seemed at times as if it weren’t as securely taped down as it might have been. Cordray & Co. needs to think about staffing now – not in November.

Cordray or DeWine will be sworn in Jan. 14. And by March 15, the governor must propose a 2019-21 budget, which amounts to a governor’s blueprint for his governorship. A budget (which can propose tax-law changes) customarily originates in the House. Say Cordray’s governor. His budget’s future would hinge on GOP Speaker Ryan Smith, of Gallia County’s Bidwell – or on Smith’s rival, ex-Speaker Larry Householder, of Perry County’s Glenford.

Challenge No. 4 for Democrat Cordray if he wins: Everyone in Ohio’s heard he’s a “Jeopardy!” champ. But how’s his (or Mike DeWine’s) poker game? Because, to provide Ohio with its next budget, political poker is what Cordray or DeWine will have to play in 2019 with Ryan Smith – or, maybe, with Larry Householder.

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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