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Democrats Want To Fill An Ohio Senate Seat. But The State's Politics Have Changed


The state of Ohio has an election for an open U.S. Senate seat next year. It is one of the races that will decide control of the Senate, which is now divided 50/50. But Ohio seems less of a swing state than it used to be. President Trump carried the state twice, and many Republican candidates for Senate are campaigning for an audience of one. NPR's Don Gonyea visited Ohio and reports on Trump's outsized influence.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: We're in the basement meeting room of the Elks Lodge in Newark, Ohio, about 45 minutes outside Columbus, out beyond the suburbs. Bumper stickers on pickup trucks make it clear that this is Trump country. And a meeting of the Licking County Republican Women is just getting underway.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands one nation under God indivisible....

GONYEA: That's where I meet retiree Geraldine Jacobs, Trump supporter.

GERALDINE JACOBS: You know, and it's a shame that we went from the best president to now really the worst president.

GONYEA: Polls tell us a majority of Republicans falsely say Trump won the election. Jacobs is one of them.

You don't think Joe Biden legitimately won the presidency.

JACOBS: No, I do not.

GONYEA: Trump carried Ohio by eight points last year, and his presence is felt deeply in the state. Republicans are looking to enact new voting restrictions. In these very early days of campaigning, U.S. Senate hopefuls are jockeying to be the most pro-Trump candidate. And the fact that a Cleveland area GOP congressman, Anthony Gonzalez, voted to impeach Trump in January has made him a handy target for Republicans looking to catch Trump's eye and maybe an endorsement. Still, you do find Trump voters who are ready to move on. Tricia Moore is an attorney and the president of the Licking County GOP women's group. I ask her if Trump remains the leader of the party.

TRICIA MOORE: Trump is a bigger-than-life figure. He is not afraid to say what he believes in, not afraid to say things that are unpopular. But at the same time, I think that there are other Republicans that are coming out strong and standing for these conservative values that are going to step forward.

GONYEA: Some strong Trump supporters acknowledge that his large presence in party affairs complicates things. Tom Zawistowski is a Tea Party leader from the Akron area. He says Trump's policies as president are to be applauded, but he also says Trump could have won reelection if he'd been better organized, more disciplined and had surrounded himself with better people. Now Zawistowski has a question.

TOM ZAWISTOWSKI: What's Trump 2.0 really look like, right? How much did he learn from this experience?

GONYEA: He says not knowing Trump's future plans complicates things for future GOP leaders and for activists. And he says if Trump endorses candidates in next year's crowded GOP primaries without consulting locals who know the candidates best, it could leave some excellent hopefuls on the sidelines.

ZAWISTOWSKI: Trump brings this wild card in. The problem there is Trump's like the big elephant in the room. If he says I'm endorsing this person, well, I got news for you. That's probably who's going to win.

GONYEA: For Democrats in Ohio, it's a very different situation. They are pushing back against the storyline that this is now a solidly red state. Representative Monique Smith is a Democratic state House member who actually flipped her suburban Cleveland House district from red to blue last year. She says it's been tough seeing Trump carry her home state twice.

MONIQUE SMITH: It was heartbreaking because part of it is about identity. If you're an Ohioan, what do you think that means? I think that means that we're pretty moderate and pretty common sense, so it remains shocking to me.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Ohio Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Walters seems to relish Trump's ongoing influence on the Ohio GOP. And she predicts Democrats will do well with voters who see how President Biden has tackled the pandemic and the economy.

ELIZABETH WALTERS: And there's no better argument than reality. I think it's meaningful that not a single Ohio Republican voted to support the American recovery plan. Like, it's a clear and simple decision on who's on your side, who cares about you and your family and who doesn't.

GONYEA: For Republicans hoping to win back the Senate next year, holding onto Ohio is crucial. It promises to be an intense year and a half before the election, and much of that will be about Donald Trump. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.