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What National Democrats Missed About the Mahoning Valley

Home-made signs joined thousands of the manufactured variety around the Mahoning Valley.

Donald Trump’s campaign had targeted northeast Ohio in trying to build a win in this key swing state. Though Hillary Clinton won about 15,000 more votes, Trump won 17 of the 20 counties in the region. And he won big in an area Democrats usually dominate – the Mahoning Valley. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler went there to discover some reasons why.

It’s moving day at the Trumbull County Republican Party, which is decamping from the space it rented for the election on the courthouse square in downtown Warren. The chairs and tables, the Trump Pence signs and banners and the full-size cutout of Donald Trump are all going back to the party’s smaller offices nearby.

Trumbull County Republican Party chair Randy Law looked around and got nostalgic as he thought about how his army of hundreds of volunteers delivered the county for a Republican candidate for president – for the first time since 1972.

“We in Trumbull County knocked on over 55,000 doors. Most of our own people don’t even know that. I did chuckle occasionally when I’d see, ‘There’s no ground game (for Donald Trump) in Ohio.'”

Trump won Trumbull County with a little over 51 percent of the vote – a dramatic flip from 2012, when President Obama won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

National Democrats didn’t listen
Just south of Trumbull County in Mahoning County, the scene is different.

The Mahoning County Democratic Party headquarters near downtown Youngstown is in a nondescript office building next to a bowling alley on a busy street dotted with strip malls, small bars and fast food restaurants. There’s absolutely no signs indicating Hillary Clinton’s win here. The chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party is back at work at his law office six miles away in Canfield.

'I ... was screaming at the train coming down the tracks, but I guess my voice wasn't loud enough.'

David Betras is dressed casually today in a T-shirt and sweat suit, but his message is very serious: He said he tried to warn the national Democratic Party what was ahead, and no one was listening.

“I detected this coming in the primary and waved my arms and was screaming at the train coming down the tracks, but I guess my voice wasn’t loud enough.”

Clinton won Mahoning County with 49 percent of the vote, beating Trump by one point. But President Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 28 points, with more than 63 percent of the vote. 

Law and Betras don’t agree on much – but they do go along with the assessment of Paul Sracic, the chair of the Youngstown State University Department of Politics and International Relations.

He says he’s told people this for years “there is nothing that’s seemed more evil in this valley than NAFTA, that NAFTA is less popular than Osama bin Laden. And I think these people in this area were waiting for a candidate who would be their champion against free trade.”

A parched population
Betras said he thinks voters felt the Democratic Party cared more about transgender rights and bathrooms than jobs. And Betras said he knew Mahoning Valley would tip toward Trump when Trump was blasting trade deals and Clinton had no defense.

He says that made Trump like dirty water to a parched population.

“At least he was talking to them about jobs and about how the North American Free Trade Agreement sucked our jobs and how all of our jobs were going to Mexico.  He was saying, ‘I know you’re thirsty – have this water. And oh by the way, I’m a misogynist, I’m a homophobic, I’m a xenophobe and I’m a racist.’ But that was secondary to them.”

'There is nothing that's seemed more evil in this valley than NAFTA.'

Law said Trump was the right messenger on the trade issue, so he wasn’t surprised at Trump’s wins in the Mahoning Valley either. But he thinks this election has caused a permanent change for this longtime Democratic stronghold.

“People vote their pocketbook and their family’s pocketbook. The other issues are big, too. This is a very conservative area, if you will – always has been, even though it’s gone Democrat. And to see our union brothers and sisters come in here and be willing to say, ‘We’re going to take a look at the candidate this time’ – that’s what we’ve been preaching.”

Trump won union households in Ohio by 12 percent over Clinton – and he won those Ohio union households by a bigger margin than he won non-union households.

But Betras strongly disagrees that the Mahoning Valley is conservative, saying that while Trump may have done well, local Democrats crushed Republican candidates.

Richard Trumka
National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tried to steer the valley toward Clinton but failed.

Sracic, the political science professor, agrees with Betras that it’ll be tough for a Republican to win a local or Statehouse race in the Valley for the foreseeable future. But Sracic thinks if trade is the issue and the parties come forward in 2020 with similar approaches, the next presidential contest could bring similar results.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.