The Ohio Democratic Party will hold its 2017 Legacy Dinner on Saturday in downtown Columbus. This year’s event will include a tribute to the late great Ohio born and raised U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Ohio’s senior senator in Washington, twice-elected Sen. Sherrod Brown, will be the dinner’s featured speaker.

Also appearing and speaking at the event will be three announced Democratic candidates for governor: former state Rep. Connie Pillich, Senate Democratic Leader Joe Schiavoni and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton.

Ohio Leans Republican

Larry Sabato, the election guru at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia who authors “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” has some early indications for races for governor.

“Ohio: The Buckeye State’s race to replace outgoing Gov. John Kasich (R) looks to be the busiest gubernatorial contest so far. Ohio Republicans have a strong bench and it shows: Three big GOP names are already in — state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R, also a former U.S. senator), Rep. Jim Renacci (R), and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) — and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) is likely to run as well. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ most notable entries are 2014 state Treasurer nominee Connie Pillich (D), state Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D), and ex-Rep. Betty Sutton (D). Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D) is expected to run, too. Sutton and Whaley are probably the two most credible candidates in that group. Looming in the background is Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), a former state attorney general and treasurer who may only run if Trump fires him from his current job, as well as former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D). Ohio turned sharply toward the GOP in 2016, and Republicans have a stronger field of candidates at the moment. At this early point, Leans Republican seems appropriate, though the environment will obviously matter.”

Democrats Long Winding Road

In the presidential election last year, Ohio voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 446,000 votes or almost nine percentage points. Mrs. Clinton twice won Ohio in presidential primaries in 2008 over Barack Obama and last year over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, while her husband Bill likewise won it twice in 1992 and 1996. In 2004, President George W. Bush won it with the help of DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] on the ballot that year, amid claims alleging that then Secretary of State Ken Blackwell rigged the election to favor the president.

Since 1994, the year Georgia Congressman and like-minded Republicans like then-Congressman John Kasich took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington with their “Contract For America,” Republicans have run the table on Democrats, from all statewide offices to both chambers of the legislature, in every election except 2006, when Democrats won four of five statewide seats.

Democrat Ted Strickland, a former Congressman, clobbered Ken Blackwell in 2006 to become governor. But soon after winning, Ohio and the nation entered the withering that was the Great Recession, which devastated Ohio with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, an economic calamity that brought virtually all states to their knees. Gov. Strickland could not endure the burden as candidate John Kasich blistered him as a leader who drove Ohio into a ditch. A former Fox News star and Lehman Brothers banker, John Kasich squeaked to a win in 2010, propelled over the finish line with the help of Tea Party inspired outrage that put the GOP back in control in Ohio and in Washington. After his win, Kasich ditched the Tea Party, and orchestrated an end-run around a GOP legislature that didn’t want Ohio to participate in the expansion of Medicaid that was included in Obamcare [The Affordable Care Act]. Gov. Kasich has since surfaced the wave of being a Republican governor who accepted, not rejected, Medicaid expansion.

With Gov. Kasich now term-limited, along with the other Republicans who won back-to-back elections in 2010, the race for Ohio’s statewide offices will again be open. Gov. Kasich will never admit it, but he benefited mightily from Gov. Strickland’s turn-around of the state that produced tens of thousands of jobs and delivered about a billion dollars to the state treasury. Mr. Kasich savaged the former Democratic governor time and time again for losing jobs during the Great Recession, but for all the budgetary razzle dazzle and reforms Mr. Kasich prides himself on, especially the 5-plus billion in income tax giveaways he believes creates jobs, even though ample evidence to the contrary exists, he now warns of another recession around the corner as state revenues falter by hundreds of millions.

Controlling The Apportionment Board

When the GOP won across the board in 2010, they also won control of the Apportionment Board, then proceeded to gerrymander legislative districts to the party’s advantage. Due in part to the control they won in 2010, the GOP now enjoys super majorities in the House and Senate, so much so that any veto Gov. Kasich might issue can be easily overridden by a legislature who wants to go in a different direction.

In the 2014 elections, Democrats again got vanquished, losing badly to GOP incumbents. The best finish for any Democrat that year was delivered by Connie Pillich, who topped out in the low 40s in her race against State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has again set his sights on trying to unseat Sen. Brown in 2018.

With Ohio a reliably red Republican state for over 20 years, a question for Democratic candidates in 2018 will be can they break the spell that’s defeated them election in and election out? As Ohio went for Donald Trump in a big way, with working-class voters siding with the New York billionaire and inveterate liar over a former First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, national talk is that Democrats need a new message and a new messenger. But what is that new message, exactly, and how is it different from traditional economic and social issues the party rallies around, and who’s this new messenger?

With Ohio in a ditch made by Gov. Kasich and Republican lawmakers, can Democrats tar Kasich with poor performance as Strickland was tarred in 2010 and 2014 by Mr. Kasich first, then Sen. Rob Portman? A key factor for Democrats will be if Ohio media, which has been friendly to Kasich for so long, muster the backbone to put Republicans on the defensive in light of the real state of the state?

Now that popular vote loser President Donald Trump is sagging bigly in the polls to the lowest levels of any new president in recent memory, can the ultimate winner of the Democratic primary in Ohio cast a message that will win back disaffected Buckeye voters who bolted to the GOP because they believed Trump’s rhetoric of bringing back jobs that have been ebbing for decades, as advances in technology threaten them even more, given their lack education and skills to keep up with changes in the workplace?

2018 More Important Than 2020

Election year 2018 will be more important than the presidential election in 2020, since the party that wins governor, secretary of state and auditor will control the Apportionment Board, which in turn will control legislative districting. Another Census will take place in 2020, and the results will determine how many Electoral College votes Ohio will have going forward. Expectations are that the Buckeye State will lose one or more congressional seats since population growth is essentially stagnant as others states like Texas or Colorado or Arizona gain population and voting power.

If Ohio Democrats get walloped again in 2018, the party’s fate will be sealed for another decade or more, as they remain a minority party in Columbus, effectively scuttling whatever new message they run on in 20 months seeing the light of day.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, this Saturday’s keynote speaker, is the big prize for Republicans if they can pull off a win over the tested and tuned-up politician from northeast Ohio, who carries the mantle of liberal lion. Sen. Brown has a distinguished career in Ohio and in Washington, so it will be a test to see if Trumpism can again win the day, even though Trumpism works to the disadvantage of those who switched from D to R because they felt left behind.