In 2004, George W. Bush showed up to campaign at the Golden Lamb Inn in Warren County, Ohio, and left with a hotel room named after him. In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin appeared at the same venue in suburban Cincinnati, cheered on by thousands. And in 2012, Mitt Romney made a similar late-fall push to energize his base in a county renowned for its staunch Republican bent.
But in 2017, in that same county, Democrats won more than a dozen local contests. And now, as the midterm election cycle heats up, Democrats there say the enthusiasm is only intensifying. It’s a reflection of the broader Democratic energy that is unfolding at every level of government in the Trump era, in some of the most traditionally Republican counties in the country—yet another worrisome sign for Republicans bracing for a difficult midterm year.
"It's a tough political environment,” said Nick Everhart, an Ohio-based GOP operative. “All of these state legislative special and off-year 2017 races across the country have been canaries in the coal mine. When there's a tough political environment, Ohio isn't the exception to the rule, it's the tip of the spear."
The extent to which local Democratic motivation can translate into votes in marquee races—as it did in the Virginia governor’s race and Alabama special Senate race late last year—will again be put to the test Tuesday, this time in Pennsylvania. President Donald Trump won the state’s 18th district by a large margin, but Republicans are now worried about the special election there, pouring in millions of dollars to avoid defeat in a deeply conservative area.
But well ahead of Tuesday’s special election, Republicans were already seeing fresh warning signs at the hyper-local level elsewhere in the country, especially in suburban areas that have long formed the backbone of the GOP but that are now drifting from the Trump brand at the local and state legislative level—from Warren County to the suburbs of Philadelphia, St. Louis and Sarasota, Fla.
“There are local cases you could write off to weird circumstances, but it would be a mistake for Republicans to write off, ignore, the movement going on in the suburbs,” said Scott Jennings, a veteran GOP strategist.
Previously sleepy Democratic parties are revving up, with each small local victory stoking enthusiasm for the next bigger contest.
Certainly, few people expect Warren County, which backed Trump with 66.5 percent of the vote in 2016, to turn blue in the 2018 elections. Democrats have historically been so beleaguered there that in both 2012 and 2016, they confronted piles of manure dumped in front of their headquarters.
But the startling results from last fall have remained top of mind for some operatives in the area who took the outcome as evidence of space for more Democratic pick-up opportunities in the midterms, especially in the suburbs. And for some Republicans, it’s served as an urgent alarm bell.
“If Republicans don’t look at this and take it as a warning sign, they’re burying their heads in the sand,” said one Ohio Republican operative familiar with the county, granted anonymity to candidly assess the GOP’s landscape. "You cannot look at that many Democratic victories in that much of a reliably Republican area and conclude anything other than, there’s an overall problem for Republicans.”
The excitement generated by those unexpected victories has sparked more interest in future races. According to the Ohio Democratic Party, an unusually high number of Democrats are now planning runs for precinct executive positions in Warren County – low-profile roles, but a sign of grassroots enthusiasm—and the GOP-held First District of Ohio, which includes Warren County and other corners of moderate suburban Cincinnati, is also increasingly considered competitive.
“It shows, at every level, from statehouse to Congress and now the precinct level, Democrats are raising their hands and saying, ‘I’m ready to go,’” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.
Bethe Goldenfield, the chair of the Warren County Democratic Party, said that at least a few disillusioned Republicans have reached out to her, expressing alarm over the polarizing direction of their party under Trump, whose hardline, controversial style has alienated some moderates.
“I just got off the phone with a woman an hour ago who wants to become involved in the party,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s about Donald Trump. She’s never voted Democratic in her life.”
“On a cumulative basis,” she said, “it’s going to get us more votes, plus with our people more motivated—because what happens, sadly, is fear and anger motivate people a lot.”
Jeff Monroe, the GOP chairman in Warren County, is skeptical. Party ID wasn’t included on the ballot last November, muddying the argument that those races were a referendum on the GOP (though it’s usually not included, and Republicans typically win, a local report noted), and contests like a township race were litigated over ultra-local issues.
“Did it happen? Yeah, it did. It was driven by a very, very localized development,” Monroe said, going on to add, “I personally don’t think Warren County is going to be any different than it has been in the past. Warren County is going to show up, the vote count is going to be roughly 70 percent or better for most Republican candidates. That’s just where we are.”
Overall, he said, the vast majority of Republicans in the county are happy with the president, reflecting national polling that shows vibrant GOP support for Trump, especially after he signed the tax reform measure, which is also increasingly viewed favorably.
But national polls aside, the same trend of historic local Democratic gains in longtime GOP strongholds is playing out across the country.
Consider Chester County, Pa., in suburban Philadelphia, where for the first time in the county’s centuries-long history, according to local news reports, Democrats won a series of local positions called county row offices.
Democratic Chair Brian McGinnis described the victories as “surreal,” adding that they have given “a lot of hope to people.” And an “unprecedented” number of Democrats have now filled local party committee slots, he said.
“We were second-class political citizens in Chester County,” he said. “Now we have a real opportunity to win some of these races.”
It was a similar story elsewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, including in nearby Bucks County, where in November Democrats had their strongest showing for county row seats in more than 50 years.
“It is largely driven by mainstream voters, mainstream Republicans and independents, being displeased by the tone and style of the administration, coupled with a historic off-year intensity by Democratic voters who wanted to make a statement,” Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican whose highly competitive district is anchored in Chester County, told McClatchy at the time.
Since then, Republican voters in the area have been enthused by the tax reform measure—but a host of other developments, from a deadly mass shooting and new suburban-rooted pushes for gun control, to Trump’s war with many in his own party over tariffs, have overshadowed that issue.
“Republican performance is concerning, it’s something the party has got to be worried about ahead of all of these congressional races that feature suburban populations,” Jennings, the GOP strategist, said. “The way back home in these suburbs is through the economy: the economy is getting better, selling tax cuts, making people in suburbs feel Republicans are executing promises…but for the last several weeks, that has certainly not been the prevailing message of the day, on any given day.”
There is plenty of time between now and the midterm elections for Republicans to get back on message—and outside groups and campaigns are planning expensive television ad campaigns to do just that. And Democrats are hardly a sure bet in some of these more moderate congressional districts, especially as they deal with their own divisive primaries and an energetic progressive base that is inclined toward candidates that could be too left-leaning in a general election.
But back in Warren County, Monroe, the GOP chairman there, didn’t dispute that Democrats are energized.
“Democrats are fired up in the suburbs of Cincinnati,” he acknowledged. “Whether or not they’re able to pull more than what we typically see, is 30 percent of the vote—I just don’t see that happening in Warren County. However, they are fired up, obviously, Democrats everywhere are fired up about what’s going on.”