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Democratic Debate Places Spotlight On Columbus Suburb Where Voters Remain Undecided


WESTERVILLE, Ohio — “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.”

The popular mantra has come to define the politics of the “Buckeye State,” swaying its electoral votes to the winning candidate in each presidential election since 1896, with the exception of backing Richard Nixon in 1960.

However, the state’s recent voting history has some Democrats questioning how much the state remains in play. Senator Sherrod Brown remains the sole Democrat to win a statewide race in the last decade since the last time Ohio went blue in 2012. In fact, Republicans have held strong majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and won the governorship in each election since 2010.

Kyle Kondik, author of “Why Ohio Picks The President,” argues that Ohio is still competitive, but has shifted to the right since 2016. This makes the state a must-win for Republicans, but not as crucial for Democrats who still have a clear path to victory without the battleground state.

“Democrats can win the White House back by holding Clinton’s 2016 map and adding some combination of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin,” Kondik said. “That said, if the Democrats do win Ohio, the election is over, because if that is happening, they probably will be winning most if not all of those other states as well.”

Kondik said the state’s tilt in the Republican direction stems from white voters without four-year college degrees becoming more Republican, an advantage for the state GOP with Ohio claiming an above-average population of such voters. The state is also home to a relatively low percentage of minority voters, a key voting bloc for Democrats.

“Those two basic demographic factors explain a lot about the state’s Republican turn,” Kondik said.

On Tuesday night, the top 12 contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination will descend on the northeast suburb of the state’s capital, Columbus, at Otterbein University for the fourth primary debate. The city is a presidential hotspot that has attracted candidates in every recent cycle since Bob Dole visited in 1996.

Westerville, home to former Governor John Kasich, is a prime target for both parties seeking to flip the state in each election. The wealthy suburb with a median household income of more than $86,000 a year has been reliably Republican for decades, with a white population higher than the state’s average. Last year’s elections however, revealed signs of change consistent with the political direction of Republican suburbs across the country where moderate Republican voters are beginning to sour on their own party.

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried Westerville by seven points. In 2016, Clinton won the suburb by five points while Donald Trump carried the state by eight. The area’s Congressman, Troy Balderson, narrowly pulled off a victory in a closely-watched special election last year, winning by less than half a percent, even as his retired predecessor comfortably carried the district since 2000.

Anne Berkal, a nurse who lives close to Otterbein is a registered Republican and fits the mold of a right-leaning voter who has not ruled out voting for Democrats in next year’s election.

Berkal, no big fan of Trump echoed the concerns of independent voters in the region saying that she hopes Democrats will speak in a way that can relate to the middle class. Berkal said she wants to see, “that somewhere up there, that there is a genuine interest in our kids’ education and our communities.”

“I haven’t seen it yet.”

Allyiah Auguste is a young hairdresser who graduated from a nearby career center studying cosmetology in 2016. Auguste expressed her concerns about candidates addressing the economic anxieties of the middle class that go further than simply “buying a gallon of milk.” Auguste, a Democrat with purple highlights, said she likes each of the top-tier candidates but isn’t sold on the idea that any one of them have yet adequately discussed how they’re going to deal with the problems plaguing middle- and low-income families without raising taxes.

Auguste is like many Democrats in the suburb who remain undecided about which candidate they see as their best hope for the country. Tuesday’s debate stage gives candidates an opportunity to make their case to voters still in play, and a chance to bolster their viability in an open race.

Some voters wanting to see a female president were drawn to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris but were deterred by Warren’s age and far-left policies, and Harris’s perceived lack of authenticity. Others preferred Andrew Yang for his outsider appeal and Pete Buttigieg for his intellect but are keeping their options open citing their low poll numbers and Buttigieg’s uphill challenge in courting African-American voters.

Janice Eddey, a 77-year-old retired elementary school teacher and registered Democrat living on the quiet campus, with more than 250 tea pots of every shape and size decorating the interior of her home, said she believes there are just too many candidates in the race.

“I think we need to narrow it down enough before we can decide who’s going to be a good candidate or not,” Eddey argued, adding she is worried about the ages of the top three front-runners.

“I feel kind of weird that the three main candidates are over 70 years old,” Eddey said sporting a white turtleneck sweater under a purple jacket. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76, Warren is 70, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is 78.

Sanders sparked additional concerns about his age earlier this month after suffering a heart-attack, prompting a break from the campaign trail. The recent episode has called into question the senator’s ability to take on Trump next fall and serve four years in the demanding role of commander-in-chief.

“The presidency is a hard place to be… Sometimes we need to think about age as being a factor,” Eddey said.