Note: This column appears in the Sunday, Nov. 18 newspaper on Page A4.
Nelsonville is under the microscope this week. The New York Times published a detailed postmortem of Democrat Taylor Sappington’s failed campaign for the 94th Ohio House seat.
Sappington’s bid to oust Rep. Jay Edwards ended with the incumbent being re-elected to the tune of around 58 to 42 percent. In a battle featuring two Nelsonville natives, Edwards’ advantages in terms of name recognition and campaign fundraising helped win him a second term.
The NYT piece, written by a sharp reporter named Alec MacGillis, posits the race hinged on the shifting political tides of rural America during the Trump era, especially where union support is concerned.
From MacGillis’ story: “For years, unions in the Midwest have rightly prided themselves on delivering the Democrats far higher margins among white working-class union members than among their nonunion brethren ... In state legislative races in Ohio, though, unions hedged their bets.”
As MacGillis writes, there are some interesting political dynamics at play, and I encourage you to read the full NYT piece to learn about them.
(Lest you fear this is another ”Big City Reporter Descends Upon Small-Town Diner In Trump Country” type of article, I assure you it is not. MacGillis is a reporter who gives this area the respect in print it deserves.)
My response to that piece is not so much to counter or disagree with the points MacGillis makes, but to at least offer my own additional context as to what I believe helped lead to another term for Edwards.
MacGillis correctly notes that Nelsonville voted for Barack Obama twice and that the 94th District seat was held by a Democrat for eight years prior to Edwards taking over. The point, as I understand it, is that the electoral successes from Trump and Edwards in both 2016 and 2018 are representative of rural America’s broader shift rightward.
I can’t speak much to the Trump existentialism, but it is my view these 94th District results are narrower in scope. I believe the results here reflect the specificities of the 94th District and those who campaign for it.
Democrat Debbie Phillips won election in 2008 back when it was called the 92nd District. Phillips, then an Athens City Council member, won a tight race against Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson.
Athens County sided heavily for Obama that year, which contributed heavily to Phillips’ victory. Phillips won Athens County by nearly 5,000 votes and earned the seat, despite losing by sizable margins in the other counties of Meigs, Morgan and Washington.
Phillips was re-elected three times, with each result bearing a similar electoral split. The strategy became clear — win your home county of Athens County, turning out the Democratic base there in large numbers; then try to filch as many votes in the surrounding Republican-leaning counties as you can.
So long as the other counties aren’t total routs, the Athens County margin should do the trick.
Here were the results:
2010 — Phillips’ challenger wins by 22 percent in Washington, 10 percent in Meigs and picks up a net 352 votes in Morgan.
Phillips wins Athens County huge: 64 to 33 percent, a 5,200 vote difference. She wins re-election.
2012 — The district is realigned to #94, dropping Morgan County but picking up Vinton County.
Phillips has a career-best showing, though again the presence of Obama on the ballot makes a big difference. Phillips loses Washington, but picks up slight wins in Meigs and Vinton.
Again, Phillips rakes in Athens County — winning a whopping 72 percent of the vote. She wins again.
2014 — Even on a down year for Ohio Democrats, the strategy holds. Phillips faces challenger Yolan Dennis, a registered nurse from Washington County. Dennis wins her home county handily, 67 to 33 percent. Phillips picks up a modest win in Vinton, but Dennis counters with a 57-43 percent win in Meigs. In those three counties combined, Dennis wins a net of 3,600 votes.
Athens County: 8,745 votes for Phillips, 4,759 votes for Dennis. Phillips wins a fourth term.
(All of the above necessarily ignores the human aspect of all this; i.e. Phillips’ policies, campaign abilities, institutional backing, etc. I am merely making a point based on the district’s geographical make-up.)
In contrast to that, consider the context of the 2018 race between Sappington and Edwards.
Sappington did not have the benefit of campaigning in the same year as a popular Democratic presidential candidate like Obama. Instead, he ran down-ballot to a slate of Democratic statewide candidates who underperformed and got swept.
Consider that Sappington’s main candidate persona — the young, local native made good — was matched (and therefore negated) by Edwards.
Consider that Edwards is not, for whatever you think of his politics, any sort of stereotype of a crusty, old politico that might have made for an easy target for a feisty, liberal challenger. Edwards generally avoids meddling into controversial social issues.
Consider that Phillips won Athens County with a percentage margin of 17 percent in 2008, 30 percent in 2010, 45 percent in 2012 and 30 percent in 2014. Comparatively, Sappington won Athens County with a percentage margin of just 11 percent. Facing off against a well-known incumbent who is also from your own home county very much hurts a Democrat’s chances of winning.
Consider that Edwards is a known commodity in all the other counties of the district. He spent the better part of his first two years in office not glad-handing Columbus social circles but traveling to baked steak dinners.
I’m not calling that a good or bad thing; plenty have made the point that Edwards’ public travels are decent but that his time might better be spent advocating for the region where it matters most — in the statehouse. There’s some merit to that view. I’m only suggesting that these travels have given Edwards credibility in the far-reaches of the district, at least in terms of name recognition.
Consider the fact these communities — Middleport, Reedsville, Belpre, Wilkesville, the list goes on — are 40 or more miles away from the Nelsonville City Council meetings where Sappington has primarily made a name for himself. The Messenger covers those meetings, but other publications like the Pomeroy Daily Sentinel, Marietta Times and Vinton-Jackson Courier do not. Forty miles away might as well be 400.
Consider that Edwards has, you might say, an aptitude for self-marketing. His official Facebook page has nearly 10,000 followers and is active seemingly every day with pictures of the representative traveling around the district. Edwards spends further advertising money to “sponsor” those Facebook posts, strategically blasting them out to constituents. You can’t scroll on a Facebook feed in Southeast Ohio for longer than 90 seconds without seeing Edwards shaking hands with a rural fire chief.
Retail politics is Edwards’ job. For Sappington, though, this past year proved to be a very expensive and time-consuming campaign he had to manage alongside separate work responsibilities and his duties as a city councilman.
All of this explains the political challenger’s burden. This is why so many challengers (of both parties) struggle in rural districts with big geographies like this. This is also why, when you add in problems of gerrymandering and campaign finance disparities, incumbents rarely ever lose.
The reality is that most voters who haven’t heard of you aren’t voting for you. The ones that might — avid Democrats offering loyal support to down-ticket candidates — do so most often during a presidential year when the turnout is better.
That, to me, is the story of the 94th District race. I’m not calling any of this right or wrong. I’m just calling it how I see it.