COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio has mostly Democratic voters, but is headed toward another rock-solid Republican majority in Congress this fall.
This bellwether state provides one of the clearest examples in the nation of how congressional districts drawn after the 2010 Census gave Republicans a 33-seat majority despite heavy voting losses. Redistricting has created such strong party majorities in each U.S. House district that few, if any, of Ohio’s congressional contests are competitive.
Politicians elected via such a map – from both parties – are less moderate and less likely than representatives from closely divided districts to listen to voices outside their own ranks, including those of independents, observers say.
“You dance with the one who brung you, as the saying goes,” said Common Cause Ohio policy analyst Catherine Turcer. “At the end of the day, that’s not good for anybody. It’s not as if the Democrats get their Democrats and the Republicans get their Republicans, and it’s all fair. Well, no. Ordinary voters get lost in the mix.”
An Associated Press analysis of 2012 voting data found that Ohio’s four congressional districts controlled by Democrats have higher concentrations of uninsured, poor and black constituents. The 12 districts controlled by Republicans are on average wealthier and predominantly white.
Those breakdowns play out in the types of issues representatives are fighting for in Washington – the minimum wage by Democrats and tax cuts by Republicans, as examples.
But what’s the incentive to compromise, asks Ohio State University law professor Dan Tokaji, if you’re guaranteed victory at home no matter how you vote?
“It promotes polarization on both sides,” Tokaji said. “We get extreme Republicans and extreme Democrats with very little common ground.”
Democratic President Barack Obama beat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Ohio 51 percent to 48 percent in 2012. That tight margin favoring the Democrat didn’t reappear in a single of the 16 districts created during Ohio’s post-2010 redistricting process, which was controlled by Republicans.
Instead, the numbers fell this way: Twelve districts – or 75 percent – contained Romney majorities, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s home district that’s 62 percent Republican; and four districts contained Obama majorities of 63 to 83 percent.
Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said it’s difficult to avoid drawing heavily Democratic districts in Ohio, because most of the state’s Democrats live in densely populated urban areas, such as Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown and Columbus. Republican voters dominate most of the rest of the state’s spread out rural and suburban areas, he said.
He cited U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge’s district in Cleveland, which is 68 percent Democrat, as an example.
“As you’re looking at trying to keep communities of interest together, as you’re looking at the compactness of districts trying not to build these spaghetti districts, you can’t just have every district reach into Cuyahoga County to give it a more partisan balance,” he said, “because the areas of Cuyahoga County that must be maintained as minority impact districts have to be kept together.”
Turcer said that argument doesn’t explain the “Rorschach inkblot of a district” that Republicans drew from Cleveland to Toledo across the top of Ohio. The decision set up a Democratic primary between longtime incumbent Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland, unseating Kucinich.
“Some of that (geographic argument) is true, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hyper-pack the districts of the minor party so there’s 80 percent of that party. There’s no reason for it to be so incredibly high,” she said. “There’s something to where this is the way people live, and then there’s unfairly putting your foot on the scale.”
Borges notes that Ohio lost two congressional districts under the 2010 Census, as many as any state.
“It becomes harder and harder to draw those districts,” he said.
Besides the Kaptur-Kucinich faceoff, the new map drew together two Republicans – U.S. Reps. Steve Austria and Mike Turner in southwest Ohio – in order to adjust. Austria stepped aside. Ohio’s new map also combined the northeast Ohio districts of Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton and Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, setting up a challenge won by Renacci. The merger of their districts allowed a new Democratic-leaning district to be added in central Ohio as Democrats sought more representation for African-Americans.
Tokaji said Ohio’s redistricting system provides an incentive to whichever party is in control to stack the map in their favor. He was among advocates of a 2012 ballot proposal to revise Ohio’s redistricting process that was rejected by voters. He argues the existing process favors partisan politics.
“If you’re a moderate, you’re homeless in Ohio politics,” he said. “There are very few people in Congress who share your views and that’s no accident.”
Borges said several Ohio congressional districts will be competitive in the fall, and he rejects the notion that the state is sending extremists to Washington under the GOP-drawn map.
“It’s hard for me to suggest that that’s the case in Ohio. I think our congressional delegation is one of the best, if not the best, in the country,” he said. “Obviously, we have the Speaker of the U.S. Congress who has become very deft at hammering out compromise. We’ve got folks (of both parties) who are really open to compromise.”
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