What Ohio's Ninth Tells Us About the 2022 Midterm Elections
by Jeff Broxmeyer
The slim congressional majorities frustrating President Joe Biden’s governing agenda have roots in the Democratic party’s longterm decline across the industrial Midwest. The region contributed 51 seats toward Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s robust House majority in 2009, when Democrats had unified control of national government, but only 37 to her narrower margin in 2021.
Northwest Ohio’s newly redrawn 9th District, where Representative Marcy Kaptur is running for her 20th term, is a prime example of the steep obstacles that now face Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.
Kaptur’s old district, “the Snake on the Lake,” went from a PVI of D+14 to a pure tossup in the new OH-9. Republican legislators cut out OH-9’s Democratic-leaning Cleveland suburbs. They were replaced with reliably conservative voters from Jim Jordan’s old OH-4 (Sandusky County) and Bob Latta’s OH-5 (Defiance, Williams, Fulton, and part of Wood).
But redistricting doesn’t tell the whole story.
Midwestern Party Decay
A closer look at voting trends in northwest Ohio paints a bleaker picture of Rep. Kaptur’s reelection chances this November and for Democrats over the next decade.
Democratic presidential vote share has dropped by 10% since 2012 among voters within the boundaries of the reshaped OH-9. Meaning, if Rep. Kaptur ran in this reshaped district a decade ago, she would have likely carried it even in a hostile environment like a “wave election.” Going back to the George W. Bush years, this new district would have been a safe seat when Ohio was otherwise a national battleground. Yet Trump won the new OH-9 by 51-49 in 2020, suggesting Kaptur’s own reelection is in jeopardy in this year’s more Republican environment.
Closer scrutiny shows where things have gone south for Democrats. The Toledo metro area remains steady as the party’s electoral base. Even as the city has shrunk in population, Lucas County continues to supply roughly half of the district’s total votes.
Elsewhere, however, the party’s vote share has been in free fall. If we take 2004 as a voting baseline, the decline has been dramatic in legacy Democratic terrain like Erie (-10%), Sandusky (-15%), and Ottawa (-10%) counties.
Barack Obama twice carried these low-density counties and their industrial towns and villages. John Kerry won Erie and Sandusky in 2004, albeit narrowly, and made a strong showing in Ottawa (48%).
Zooming into Sandusky City gives us a sense of whose political loyalties are shifting. This blue-collar city of 25,000 on Lake Erie is historically the Democratic party’s second most important stronghold in the new OH-9 after Toledo. Sherrod Brown, the last Democrat elected statewide in Ohio, performed 9% better here during his 2018 reelection than Biden would two years later.
In 2020, Trump picked up more votes in nearly every neighborhood even as he lost Sandusky City overall. The largest swing from Brown ’18 to Trump ’20 was among lower and moderate-income white homeowners and renters on the city’s west side in precincts M (34% swing), N (25%), and P (27%)—the last of which Trump managed to flip. This tracks with exit polls that show gains by Trump among white-working class voters in Ohio since 2016.
Map of OH-9 Partisan Lean
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
Sandusky City Detail: Precinct Swings, Brown 2018 to Trump 2020
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
The only place where Democratic vote share has increased since 2004 is the district’s portion of Wood County (+7%). OH-9’s slice of Wood includes Perrysburg, the region’s wealthiest suburb. Perrysburg is one of the few cities in northwest Ohio where the population is growing, and, notably, the only part of the new district to defy the region’s pull toward Republicans in the Trump era.
Much like around the country, Democrats have picked up some new voters in traditionally Republican-leaning suburbs. But those gains are modest. Meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out everywhere outside of Lucas County.
Another way to chart the balance of party competition in northwest Ohio is to look at local organizational capacity. Here, things are more promising for Democrats than tracking vote share alone.
Party control at the county level is now highly skewed, reflecting the growing polarization of rural and urban voters. Rural parts of OH-9 like Defiance, Williams, and Fulton counties have elected only Republicans to offices like commissioner, sheriff, and treasurer. Conversely, the district’s most populous county, Lucas, elects only Democrats.
The breakdown is more evenly divided in Erie and to a lesser extent, Ottawa and Sandusky. Down-ballot resilience in legacy Democratic terrain outside of Lucas County suggests a pocket of strength that Rep. Kaptur might benefit from when politics is less nationalized.
The Wood County Republican Party, for its part, has a high capacity for mobilization. Democrats have been locked out of office there for years even as that county has historically been a bellwether and suburbs like Perrysburg have drifted toward Democrats in national contests.
The Lucas County Democratic party has served as Rep. Kaptur’s political base since she was first elected in 1982. It is an old school labor party—the kind that was once common across the Midwest in House districts like that of Dick Gephardt (MO-3) and Dave Obey (WI-7).
Private sector union density remains comparatively high in this district covering the Great Lakes industrial belt. The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, represent over 10,000 workers, primarily at a Jeep plant and other auto manufacturing in the Toledo metro area (Lucas County). Several thousand members of other industrial unions and the building trades are scattered across Toledo, Sandusky City (Erie County) and Rossford (Wood).
Labor unions form the backbone of the party’s grassroots capacity for voter mobilization. They have slowed, but hardly stopped, the drift of white working-class men into the Republican camp during the Trump era.
If union locals rally behind Kaptur, as they have done in the past, they have the potential to make the difference in a tight race.
2022 and Beyond
Kaptur does enjoy key advantages. She is a seasoned legislator with a high touch constituent-style focused on local issues like water quality around Lake Erie. She sits on the powerful appropriations committee that has awarded earmarks in her district. And on paper, the partisan balance of the reshaped OH-9 is technically even.
Still, Kaptur’s struggle for reelection in this longtime party stronghold reflects deeper troubles for her party. If current trends hold, it is hard to imagine that Midwestern districts like OH-9 will help rebuild the Democrats’ next House majority, whenever that arrives.
Jeff Broxmeyer is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Toledo.