For the past decade, the Democratic Party, both in Ohio and around the country, has been in a full-throttle decline, rapidly and precipitously shooting downhill.
As with any great fall, this one started from a great height. Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for 29 of the 31 congressional sessions between 1933 and 1994 and the U.S. Senate for 27 of those sessions. In each chamber the party held, on average, approximately 60 percent of the seats during this period.
This nearly uninterrupted rule came to a dramatic end in the 1994 elections, when Democrats lost more than one-fifth of their House seats and nine of their 57 Senate seats. In doing so, they ceded control of both chambers to the GOP. With the exception of 18 months during which Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection gave Democrats control, the Republican Party has held those Capitol Hill majorities for nine years and counting.
The 2002 elections presented an ideal time for Democrats to reclaim the crown. Since the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration in 1934, the party living in the White House had never gained seats in mid-term elections. Eyeing the downward trending economic charts, most political analysts predicted the continuance of this pattern.
Instead, Democrats defied six decades of historical precedent by losing three Senate seats and eight House seats.
Ohio's state politics have similarly veered away from the Democratic Party. From 1973 to 1994, Democrats controlled the Ohio House of Representatives without interruption. Since 1994, Democrats have never held the majority, holding, on average, only 40 percent of the chamber's 99 seats. In the Ohio Senate, the Democratic presence decreased more gradually, from 1978, when they held nearly 64 percent of the seats, to the current session, in which they hold just one-third of the 33 seats.
The party affiliations of the six elected officials — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state and treasurer — who make up the executive branch of Ohio's government serve as further evidence that Ohioans have shunned the Democratic Party in statewide elections. From 1971 to 1994, Democrats filled, on average, three-quarters of these posts. In the two elections since 1994, they have not been able to win even one of these offices.
What has turned the once-powerful Ohio Democratic Party into an anemic organization that is dominated at the ballot box?
State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-Cincinnati) believes that this fall signifies nothing more than a cyclical changing of the guard.
"The political pendulum swings back and forth," he says. "I cannot point to any one thing and say that it led to a change in the power structure in Ohio."
Bill Burges, a Cleveland-based political strategist who has worked extensively with the Democratic Party, blames the recent ongoing decline on the loss of the top offices in the state.
"Without the governor's mansion and at least some statewide offices, it is hard to expect too much from the state Democratic Party," Burges says. "I know that's the chicken-and-egg scenario, but you do well when you are in power."
But Brian Flannery, former state representative and the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2002, believes the lack of a clear message is responsible for the decline of his party.
"In my travels around the state, people tell me that they want to hear ideas and the vision for where Ohio is going," Flannery says. "It has been hard for us to articulate that vision without money. It is also difficult because we are the minority party and, when you're in the minority, you do not receive much attention."
But rather than blaming the lack of a unifying message on inadequate funding, Flannery sees a circular effect between the two.
"We did not have a strong organization, we did not have an effective way to accumulate money and we did not have a strong message," he says. "If you do not have a clear message, people are not going to respond to you with their donations."
Mallory believes it has always been difficult for Democrats to communicate such a message.
"It is harder for Democrats to define our message as a party because the Democratic Party is more diverse than is the Republican Party," he says. "We have to encompass a wider ranger of views, and it becomes difficult to hone that down into something that everyone can agree to."
Yet 20 years ago the Democratic Party communicated a clear, cohesive message. It stood proudly for, among other things, workers' rights, civil rights, abortion rights; for social programs that helped the poor; and for quality public schools. It strongly opposed the infringement of individuals' rights, the death penalty and tax cuts that generally benefited the wealthy. Democrats were liberal and progressive and working for average Americans, from the middle class to the inner-city poor.
Now "liberal" is a tag that few Democrats are willing to accept. It stands not for social justice and sensible fiscal policy but for big government, high taxes and heavy spending. The GOP has successfully labeled liberal Democrats as Hollywood kooks and elitists, as ivory tower academics with no real-world ideas, as fiscally inept do-gooders and as the party that wants to take your money and give it to an inner-city black woman who does not have enough sense to stop having kids.
Instead of reclaiming, through words and actions, the image of a liberal as a politician who helps all Americans, not just the wealthy, the party has merely moved to the political middle. Thus far, state and national leaders of the Democratic Party have failed to build a strong platform that effectively counters the labels stuck on it by the GOP.
Unless the party leadership quickly and effectively crafts and communicates a message that redefines Democrats, differentiates them from moderate Republicans, excites voters and reclaims the disillusioned millions who have migrated to truly progressive parties, it will be many years before the pendulum swings back.