Ohio Democratic Party [ODP] Chairman David Pepper said Wednesday that local Democatic wins this week were the result of building infrastructure and running good people for local office.  For Pepper, it also showed the party can enjoy more wins next year, a presidential election year, when voter turnout is historically higher than off-year or mid-term elections.

It’s About Voter Turnout

While last year was indeed a tough year for Democrats, the results of mayor and council elections in Ohio’s top ten cities yesterday were roundly accepted by Pepper as prima fascie evidence that the stunning back-to-back losses of all five statewide offices—governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state—won’t be easily repeated, especially next year.

“I was thrilled by what we saw yesterday,” he told reporters. Adding to the chairman’s euphoria over yesterday’s results was the success of Issue 1 at the ballot box. Issue 1, which creates a bipartisan, public process for drawing legislative districts, won handily 71-29 percent. It’s passage means the political playing field could be more level that the current district map tilted by winning Republicans in 2010 to benefit GOP candidates.

Pepper said the top priority has been to build party infrastructure. “We competed all over the state and ran great candidates in cities where there’s been no contests for a long time,” he said. His elation derived from mayoral wins in Ohio’s five largest cities. In fact, Pepper said, nine of the ten largest cities now have Democratic chief executives. Pepper pointed with pride to the “enormous” election of Paula Hicks-Hudson, who became the first African-American woman and the first Democrat since 2006 to be elected mayor of Ohio’s fourth-largest city. She won by more than 34.4 percentage points over her opponents in the Toledo mayor’s race.

Wins in Akron, Columbus and Chillicothe were big, as was winning city council seats along the way. Holding onto critical areas was good, Pepper said, noting that off-year elections have been trouble for Democratic voter turnout.

Pepper and his party partner Nina Turner, a former state senator who ran for secretary of state last year and lost, are courting younger, next-generation candidates. “This is the foundation of a strong strategy,” Pepper said, mindful that his base voters still need to understand that “every year matters.”

Issue 1 was a “huge win for Ohio,” Pepper said, interpreting its lopsided passage as a clear message that Buckeye voters are looking for a more representative legislature. A more balanced legislature likely wouldn’t crusade against workers’ rights as was the case with Senate Bill 5 that Gov. John Kasich signed into law, but which got nullified 2-1 by voters in 2011. A more balanced General Assembly likely wouldn’t be attacking women’s health either, he opined.

“Yesterday was the beginning of the answer,” Pepper said. He added that the party’s many successes were the result of “all united, no in fighting.” Especially heartening was picking up city council seats in so-called “red areas.” Part of getting ready for next year’s primary season, he said, is getting Democratic candidates in-state. ODP intends to be supportive and welcoming, he said, hoping to pump up turnout to the mid-70 percent level. “Once voter turnout is high enough, the math is very tough” for Republicans to overcome, even with massive expenditures by big backers like the Koch Brothers and others, who can pump hundreds of millions into the political process at will.

With the collapse at the polls yesterday of Issue 3, the legalization of medial and recreational marijuana, Pepper said medical marijuana is a good step that can earn bipartisan support.

Time will be the judge of whether Pepper and Turner can build the party infrastructure up enough that whomever becomes the Democratic nominee for president next year won’t have to bring all the resources and carry all the burden of winning the key battleground state of Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes can make or break a run for the White House. Some Democrats like to say that when Democrats stay home, they elect Republicans. That was the case last year, when Gov. Kasich won big in percentage terms but actually only received fewer than one in four registered voters’ votes.

The number of registered voters in Ohio Tuesday was 7,529,667, down hundreds of thousands from 2004 when Ohio had more than 8 million voters. Turnout Tuesday was far from spectacular at 42 percent, but that was up from the primary turnout of just 36.2 percent, the lowest since World War II.