The unexpected happened to Southeast Ohio Democrats on Election Day 2016. Now what?

Editors Note: This article incorporates audio and video to further tell the story of Southeast Ohio Democrats, click on the audio and video links from interviews I conducted throughout the story for full effect.


“Disbelief.” “Sadness.” “Distraught.”

These were just a few of the terms Nicholas Felt, a junior at Ohio University studying political science, used when describing his emotions after a wave of red candidates overtook the nation’s electorate on Nov. 8.

“I had been around a few people in the LGBT community that I’m close with and a lot of international students as well,” said Felt, also member of the Ohio University College Democrats. “They were all kind of distraught, for lack of a better term, about what had happened the night before.”

President-elect Donald Trump and a number of other successful Republican candidates were what had happened the night before.

Besides capturing the presidency, the GOP won 245 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and held onto a majority in the U.S. Senate. More than two thirds of the nation’s governors are now Republican, and 68 of the country’s 98 state legislatures are Republican-run.

This left many Democrats like Felt puzzled. What had happened? How had no one, not the pollsters or political pundits, expected such a devastating blow to the Democratic Party?

Republicans now holds a super majority in the State House and Senate in Ohio, and of those seats that were up for grabs, only two Democrats of the 16 who ran won in the House. Ohio Democrats also held onto 33 of 99 seats in the Senate.

One of the most surprising Democrat losses in the Senate took place in the 30th  District of Ohio, where incumbent Lou Gentile lost his bid for reelection.

Felt, also a campaign intern for Gentile, said his competitor State Senator-elect Frank Hoagland, a small business owner and retired Navy SEAL, was not expected to win as per data. At the end of October, Gentile had raised $420,000 versus Hoagland’s mere $35,000, according to The Post.

Gentile was the only incumbent Democrat running for reelection in the Ohio Senate, and the only Ohio Senate incumbent who lost in the state.

“We were really optimistic going into the election, we felt that we ran a very good campaign,” Felt said.

Gentile, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, has served as State Senator for the 30th District since 2011, when he was appointed to the seat by Senate Democrats after Sen. Jason Wilson’s resignation. In the 2012 election, Gentile held onto his seat with 52 percent of the vote.

“It was unfortunate but you can definitely expect Lou to be back,” Felt said. “I can’t speak on behalf of him, but I don’t think his time in public service is over. You can definitely expect to hear his name again.”

Infographic courtesy of The New York Times.
Infographic courtesy of The New York Times.

Athens County is widely known as a heavily blue district in Ohio.

On Nov. 8, 2016, 55 percent of the county voted for Hillary Clinton, 64 percent for Gentile and 53 percent for Sarah Grace, the candidate for the 95th District in the Ohio House of Representatives. But, the surrounding counties in Southeast Ohio thought otherwise, electing their competitors: Trump, Hoagland and Jay Edwards.

Jay Edwards won the 94th District seat in the Ohio House with nearly 58 percent of the vote, winning the majority of Washington, Vinton and Meigs County.

“I think Sarah Grace ran a really strong race for state house representative,” John Haseley, chairman of the Athens County Democrat Party, said on the night of the election. “But I think she got caught up in forces outside of her control outside of Athens, Athens County really gave her a strong vote.”

Grace and Edwards were both new to the political scene in their bids for the 94th District. As the current representative, Democrat Debbie Phillips, reached her term limit this year, Athens Democrats campaigned hard to keep the seat blue.

Grace out raised Edwards, with nearly $76,000 to his $48,600 in the general election, according to The Post.

Grace also had a recent precedent of Democratic control behind her as well. Even so, Haseley said he thinks Grace “got caught up in the national election outside of Athens County.”

Despite the upset in the 2016 election, Democrats are looking towards the midterm election for a chance to restore their liberal values in Southeast Ohio’s representatives.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party said in a press release on Nov. 9. “Tuesday was a terrible day for our country and for our state. We have a lot of work to do.”

Pepper continued by saying:

“Of course we have to dust off and rebuild to win elections in 2017, 2018 and 2020. One piece of good news is that thousands of people were passionately involved in this past election, so there remains a strong, durable infrastructure from 2016 which we can now build upon, and that we can only make stronger for future years.”

Haseley’s post-election message for Athens Democrats mirrored that of the state party chairman’s, both looking towards the future as a time to reinstate Democratic principles.

“We are looking forward to growing the Democratic Party here, and getting things done,” Haseley said. “We have a really strong Democratic Party that cares about issues that are important to this part of Ohio. We care about what people in Appalachia are going through we care about what students are going through with college debt.”

Felt anticipates a big fight coming up in the 2018 midterm elections, waiting to see the repercussions that a Trump presidency might have on the Appalachian region of the state.

“So I think a big thing, with how Ohio votes at least, in the next few years is going to be how Southeast Ohio gets jobs back and how everybody’s pocketbooks are going to be affected by Trump’s new tax plan,” Felt said.

Felt continued by saying he’s personally taken steps to mobilize voters and emphasize the importance of the future election.

But when it comes down to it he said, “we are really going to be pushing to make sure the country does not vote like it did a few weeks ago.”

 

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