updated 7/15/2008 7:26:50 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:26:50

Ohio was the first entirely American state, and one which ever since has seemed an epitome of American normalcy. The original 13 states started as British colonies, and the next three, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee, were spun off from them. But Ohio sprung Athena-like from the head of Congress, as the first state formed from the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established 6-by-6 mile square townships, which imposed geometric order on diverse American landscapes west to the Pacific; it set aside one square mile per township for public schools, and the landscape was soon peppered with schoolhouses and small colleges, the foundation stones of a literate republic. The Ordinance prohibited slavery, opening the way for free labor to clear fields, raise crops, build mills and factories, and in less than half a century, make this wilderness one of the most productive parts of western civilization. Ohio in the years after the Civil War became one of the great industrial states, the original headquarters of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the site of major steel mills along the narrow and languidly flowing Cuyahoga and Mahoning Rivers, and home of the biggest soap companies, machine tool makers, tire manufacturers and producers of safety glass. Dayton was the home of the Wright brothers, of James Ritty and James Patterson, the inventor and manufacturer of the cash register, of Charles Kettering, who invented the automobile starter and many other things. Akron was the home of Harvey Firestone, B. F. Goodrich and F. A. Seiberling, founder of Goodyear—the great tire manufacturers. They invented their devices and built their factories in a state that was culturally split, settled by New Englanders in the northeast in the Western Reserve and by Virginians in the south, split between the Southern-accented counties south of the National Road and U.S. 40 and the Northern-accented cities and towns to the north; between Butternut and Copperhead territory that didn’t want to fight the Civil War and Yankee territory that fiercely prosecuted the War and Reconstruction afterwards.

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This split heritage made Ohio politically a closely divided state—and a nationally pivotal one. A little more than a century ago Ohio produced the candidate and campaign manager—Governor and former Ways and Means Chairman William McKinley and iron and coal industrialist Mark Hanna; McKinley won the presidency in 1896 and 1900 and inaugurated a 34-year period of Republican national majorities. McKinley’s Republicans were for high tariffs and hard money, had a friendly regard for workers and even some unions, but no patience with large union combinations and nascent socialism. They preached a nationalist Americanism tempered by a wariness about making major commitments abroad. Republicans were the majority in this increasingly industrial Ohio, losing rural Butternut counties but carrying the big industrial cities of the north.

Then came the Depression of the 1930s, and Ohio became the scene of something like class warfare, with sit-down strikes and victories for the CIO industrial unions in autos, steel and tires. CIO cities—Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Toledo—moved sharply toward the Democrats, while places with few CIO members—Cincinnati, Columbus, the dozens of small factory towns dotting the flat limestone plains of northern Ohio—stayed Republican. The political fighting was fierce and the stakes seemed high. CIO leaders hoped to organize the entire work force and build a Scandinavian-style welfare state; Republican leaders like Ohio’s Senator Robert Taft feared union control of business would imperil freedoms and throttle the economy. In the 1930s and 1940s the unions made great gains. But Taft held them off, reducing union power with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, his own reelection to the Senate in 1950, and the election of his rival Dwight Eisenhower as president in 1952.

In the years since, Ohio has oscillated and been courted by national campaigns. In the 1990s Ohio swung to the Republicans. Bill Clinton did carry the state twice, but by the narrowest of his margins in any large state—40%-38% in 1992, 47%-41% in 1996—and Al Gore lost here 50%-46% in 2000. Ohio Republicans won smashing victories in 1994 and 1998 and held their own in 1996 and 2000. The leading figure was George Voinovich, elected governor in 1990 by 56%-44%, reelected in 1994 by 72%-25%—by far the biggest margin since 1826, when neither Republican nor Democratic parties existed—and elected senator by 56%-44% in 1998. But this has not just been a personal victory. From 1976 to 1994 Ohio was represented by two Democrats in the Senate, but when they retired they were replaced by Republicans: Mike DeWine and Voinovich, both of whom had run unsuccessfully for the Senate before. In 1998 Republican Bob Taft, bearer of a great Ohio name, was elected governor over Democrat Lee Fisher by 50%-45%. Until Taft’s 1998 victory, Ohio’s governorship had been passed back and forth between the two parties, with neither holding it for more than eight years, since George K. Nash won in 1899. By 2006 Republicans held it for a longer period than any party since 1803–22. Republicans also held every downballot statewide office, most of which were held by Democrats between 1970 to 1994, seemingly impervious margins in both houses of the legislature, and the majority of the U.S. House delegation. Despite the state’s lagging economy, George W. Bush carried Ohio 51%-49% in 2004, as turnout surged as much as 20% in a state with very little population growth.

Then in 2006 came a great turnaround toward the Democrats. Ohio, unused to having one party in control for more than a decade, recoiled against the Republicans. It did not help that the supposedly fiscally responsible party had raised taxes several times, and that was not mitigated by cuts in the income tax made by Taft and the legislature in 2005 or by the $2 billion bond issue passed by voters that year. As often happens when a party is in power for many years, there was scandal. In August 2005 Taft pleaded no contest to criminal violations of state ethics laws: he had failed to report some $6,000 of gifts—free golf outings, meals, hockey tickets. Minor stuff, but the first time an Ohio governor had been found to have violated criminal law. At the same time the state Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation, controlled by Republicans, was under investigation for placing $50 million in investments in a rare coin business run by major Republican contributor Tom Noe; the story was broken by the Toledo Blade in April 2005, and in May it was reported that as much as $13 million of the state’s assets were missing. The state had made money on the investments, but so did Noe: his 20% share of profits amounted to nearly $2.6 million. And a couple of coins were lost in the mail, including an 1855 $3 gold piece, one of two in existence. Noe was indicted in February 2006 for stealing from the coin investment fund and in May 2006 pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws. His trial on state charges took place from mid-October until the week after the election. Democrats swept the 1970 election here after the Republican state treasurer was charged with making improper investments through a firm called Crofters. The rare coin scandal produced similar results in 2006.

Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland, a former prison psychologist, was elected governor by a 61%-37% margin over Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Taft critic from the right. Strickland carried 72 of 88 counties and won more popular votes than Voinovich had in 1994; the only major metro area Blackwell carried was his home base of Cincinnati. Democrats won the offices of attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown beat Senator Mike DeWine by a solid 56%-44%. Democrats did not quite sweep the board, however. A Republican won the race for auditor narrowly; one Republican won a seat on the state Supreme Court and another Republican justice was reelected; Republicans held on to majorities in the legislature, losing just one seat in the state Senate and seven in the House. And Democrats gained only one U.S. House seat, that vacated by Bob Ney, who was later sentenced to jail for doing favors for lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Turnout was up 25% over 2002, perhaps partly because of the minimum wage referendum Democrats put on the ballot, which passed 57%-43%; Ohioans also voted 57% against slot machines and 59% to bar smoking in public places. High turnout in a sweep year seems to be an Ohio tradition; turnout spiked in the 1962 and 1990 Republican sweeps and the 1970 and 1982 Democratic sweeps.

The Republican trend of the 1990s and the Democratic trend of 2006 occurred in a state that is still more industrial than post-industrial, a state changed by the immigration of the early 20th century but little touched by the immigration of the late 20th century, a state where cultural liberalism has a far smaller constituency than it does on the East or West Coasts or even in nearby Illinois and Michigan. It used to be said that Ohio was a typical state, a great test market, for in income levels, urban-rural balance, and ethnic mix, as well as presidential percentages, it is not very far from the national average. But economically and culturally, it is different, a template perhaps for Indiana and Missouri but not for Oregon and Arizona. There are few immigrants here; the population is only 2% Hispanic. Ohio’s median household income is only 6% below the national average, but the median housing value is 23% below. Ohio trails only California and Texas, which are three and two times as large, in manufacturing jobs, yet it has 400,000 fewer of them than it did in the peak year, 1969, and its population and income have been increasing at less than the national average; from 2000 to 2004 it had a lower rate of population growth than any state but West Virginia and North Dakota. The Ohio economy seems stuck in the 2001–02 recession. Employment peaked at 5,585,000 in February 2000, fell to 5,502,000 in February 2004 and didn't overcome its peak 2000 employment until February 2006. The unemployment rate rose from 3.9% in March 2001 to 6.0% in January 2003, 6.1% in March 2005 and 5.6% in July 2006—far lower than in the recession years of 1958 and 1982, but still uncomfortably above the national average. The unemployment is worst not in the Cleveland metro area, which hasn’t gained much population in decades, but in Youngstown and Dayton and in rural counties in the eastern, southern and western parts of the state. Pretty much gone is the old tradition of heading straight from high school and perhaps military service to a high-wage factory job. General Motors and Ford have been shutting down plants and permanently laying off thousands of workers in Ohio, while Honda decided in 2006 not to build a fourth plant in Ohio but to go to Indiana instead; the state’s encouragement of bioscience and high-tech businesses has not generated nearly as many offsetting job gains.

Politically, there are two distinct parts of Ohio. One, call it Northeast Ohio, is the part where the CIO unions organized the big factories, the heavy industry area along Lake Erie and reaching south to the coal-mining counties across the Ohio River from West Virginia. In Northeast Ohio giant steel mills closed in Cleveland and the Mahoning Valley around Youngstown in the 1980s, and population declined as young people moved out. Politically, the Democratic voting habits instilled by the CIO unions are still evident, though there was no movement toward Democrats on cultural issues in the 1990s here, as there was in larger metro areas. George W. Bush lost the area 55%-41% in 2000 and 54%-46% in 2004. But it has swung in both directions in recent gubernatorial elections, 49%-48% for Republican Bob Taft in 2002, a huge 68%-29% for Democrat Ted Strickland in 2006. The rest of the state, call it Southwest Ohio, is a more diversified industrial area, never so dependent on big industries like steel, tires and autos. It did not lose so many jobs or suffer such population loss in the early 1980s as Northeast Ohio. Parts of it began building a new, more supple and adaptable manufacturing economy, with smaller factories, less rigid management and fewer union members, an economy which did reasonably well in the 1990s but has had little growth since 2000. In this part of Ohio the cultural atmosphere in small towns and even its big cities has become culturally quite conservative, with the possible exception of Columbus, Ohio’s fastest-growing metro area, with something of a post-industrial, information-based economy. Politically, this area has long been heavily Republican; the old Butternut Democratic tradition for many years seemed to have disappeared by the 1990s. Bush carried this part of the state 56%-40% in 2000 and 60%-40% in 2004 and Taft carried it 65%-31% in 2002. But in 2006 Southwest Ohio swung Democratic: 56%-42% for Strickland, who comes from the farthest south part of the state, and 51%-49% for Senator Sherrod Brown. The shift to the Democrats was bigger here, where the electorate has been growing faster than in northeast Ohio. Between 1980 and 2000 turnout in Northeast Ohio rose only 3%, while it rose 16% in Southwest Ohio; in 2004 the Democrats’ heroic efforts increased turnout in Northeast Ohio 18% over 2000, but the Bush campaign’s efforts helped increase turnout in Southwest Ohio 21%. Similarly, turnout between 2002 and 2006 rose 22% in Northeast Ohio and 26% in Southwest Ohio.

So where does Ohio stand in history? Is it New Deal Ohio, with ethnic factory workers arranged against small town businessmen, ethnic Catholics versus rural Protestants, all engaged in a contest to see how far and in what ways government should be enlarged? Or is it McKinley's Ohio, with mechanical tinkerers and can-do manufacturers, adaptive businessmen and employees, striving to work hard, raise families and serve communities that feel little class conflict or economic envy? For a decade or so it seemed to be McKinley’s Ohio. The 2006 election results suggest that happy days are here again for the Democrats and that it may be once again New Deal Ohio.

A footnote on Ohio politics. Since the 1950s, no one has been elected governor or senator here without losing a race for one of those offices first, with the single exception of William Saxbe, elected to the Senate in 1968. In 2006 the jinx seemed to be broken, as Congressman Sherrod Brown was elected to the Senate and Congressman Ted Strickland was elected governor. But Brown had a losing statewide race in his past, when he lost a bid for reelection as Secretary of State in 1990.

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