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The Statehouse News Bureau provides educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations.

Debate In Westerville Presents Opportunity For Democrats To Gain Ground In Suburbs

Otterbein University [Dan Konik]
Otterbein University

Otterbein University, located in the central Ohio suburb of Westerville, is preparing for thousands of people to flock to its campus to watch the fourth Democratic presidential debate. The party sees this as an opportunity to try and win over a block of voters that usually vote for Republicans.

The university has about 3,000 enrolled students. That population could almost double as thousands pour in for the debate. Several locations around the country were vying to host the event, but John Comerford, Otterbein University president, says Otterbein was able to pull ahead for a number of reasons.

"We think they were impressed with our facilities and our campus and our staff's ability to get things done," says Comerford.

He adds that Otterbein has a history of playing a role in national discourse. It was the first higher education establishment to be founded as a co-ed college, putting men and women in the same classroom, and with its first graduates being women.

Comerford adds that being a smaller school has its advantages.

"So our pitch was really about our ability to be a good partner. That we knew that our local community partners and the faculty and staff and students we have here on campus could respond and be flexible and be nimble in a way that we know we're very good at and we knew that an event like this was going to take a lot of that to pull off," says Comerford.

At least one other network had scouted an Ohio location for this debate, but CNN and Otterbein were chosen by the Democratic National Committee, which saw value in bringing the debates to Westerville.

Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper says voters in Westerville and other large suburbs on the outskirts of the state's bigger cities are trending in the Democrats favor. Pepper says these are areas that have historically been Republican strongholds.

"These places are turning blue. They're turning blue very quickly. Driven largely by women and so this debate is a place where symbolically that's happening as much as anywhere," says Pepper.

Last year, Democrats flipped six Republican-held seats in the Ohio House and one in the Senate. But they also lost a Senate seat. Some had suggested the debate should be held in Dayton or Youngstown, two areas that flipped to support President Donald Trump in 2016 but are showing signs of going back to blue. But Pepper says suburbs like Westerville are critical. He notes Westerville is in Ohio's 12th Congressional district where last year  Democrat Danny O'Connor lost to Republican Troy Balderson by about four points. In this decade, Democrats had been losing that district by about 40 points.

Pepper argues that this swing is the result of voters who are losing interest in supporting the Republican platform.

"If this state is going to turn blue and we believe it can a lot of that will be because suburbs that used to be the base of the Republican party before Trump came along are so turned off by Donald Trump and often by the antics of the Statehouse on issues like guns and reproductive rights that these suburbs that were perfectly happy voting for Republicans not long ago are voting for Democrats," says Pepper.

But Ohio Republican Party spokesperson Evan Machan believes bringing the Democratic Presidential Debate to Westerville will hurt the party.

"The Democrats and their traveling circus show keep moving further to the left. This won’t play well in Ohio," Machan says.

But Pepper says the voters are following the national and statewide message coming from Democrats and that suburban community members are drawn towards candidates who talk about health care, the economy, and jobs.

As for Otterbein President John Comerford, he's grateful for the opportunity the university has to showcase what it has to offer. But he says it will also be an experience for all students and staff to get involved no matter what their party affiliation is.

"It's also an alignment of our values. That we are very excited about being a place where we get to have democracy in action," says Comerford. "There's a commitment. We're not just doing this for PR or because the space is getting rented or whatever else. We're doing this because this is part of our mission."

Comerford says most classes are integrating their courses to align with the debate in some way. Journalism students will get to cover the event, political science students will have an opportunity to meet professionals, and even theater students will act as stand-ins for the candidates on the stage to help CNN prepare for the broadcast.

Copyright 2019 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.