WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden just can't quit Ohio — even if it rejected him in last year's election.
The Democrat travels to Cincinnati on Wednesday to push his economic policies. It's the third visit of his presidency to Ohio, the only state he lost that he has visited multiple times.
Ohio was once an electoral prize that could decide who occupied the White House, but its embrace of Republicans has tightened over the past decade. The visit is a testament to Biden's belief that going straight to voters will help cross a barbed political divide.
“Half of life is showing up, and Joe Biden shows up,” said John Anzalone, Biden's presidential campaign pollster. "He’s going to be a president for people who voted for him and people who voted against him."
Ohio Republicans, for their part, see the presidential attention as a chance to make the case against Democrats. The state faces a heated Senate election next year with the retirement of Republican Rob Portman, who helped negotiate a $973 billion infrastructure plan with Biden that now faces an uncertain future in the evenly split Senate.
The president's visit will take him near the dangerously outdated Brent Spence Bridge — a chokepoint for trucks and emergency vehicles between Ohio and Kentucky that the past two presidents promised without success to replace. But Republicans are more focused on the increase in shootings and crime in Cincinnati, which they blame on Democrats, although there are a host of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic.
“President Joe Biden will visit a great city suffering from devastating levels of violent crime caused by the failed leadership of Democrat Mayor John Cranley,” said Ohio Republican Party Chair Bob Paduchik, adding that he believes Biden also failed “to protect Americans and our southern border.”
Violent crime, particularly shootings and homicides, have been on the rise nationwide. But overall, far fewer crimes are committed than 10 years ago. Cincinnati, for example, saw a high number of shootings and record homicides in 2020 as the pandemic raged, according to the city’s data. Homicides are slightly lower this year, with 49 homicides as of July 10 compared with 53 during the same period last year.
Before a town hall in Cincinnati to be shown on CNN, Biden will visit a training center for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to discuss policies to create union jobs. The president can already say he's delivered results for the area with $280 million in local relief funds for Cincinnati and $159 million for the surrounding Hamilton County from his coronavirus aid package.
The president's time is one of the administration's most valuable commodities. With presidential visits to the Ohio cities of Columbus, Cleveland and now Cincinnati, the White House is betting that Biden's policies are popular with independent voters and that the electorate will reward a president and party that are trying to solve their problems.
Democratic wins have been few and far between outside Ohio's cities. The state is a microcosm of the national challenge for a party whose voters are clustered around large metro areas. Winning Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron is not enough to overcome Republican advantages in the state's more rural counties. Former President Donald Trump may have energized Ohio voters, but the GOP's track record of success predates him.
“Ohio is not exactly trending well for Dems the past couple cycles, but it is deeper than just Trump,” said Republican strategist Michael Hartley. “It is something that is almost at a fundamental level and has to do as much with the quality of candidates and the status of the Ohio Dem Party. They just don’t know how to connect with the majority of Ohio voters.”
Democrat Sherrod Brown has safely held onto his Senate seat since 2006. That election was the last big set of victories statewide by Democrats, a wave made possible after a political scandal for Republicans that involved state funds being invested in rare coins. However, next year might be a chance for Democrats to take Portman's seat.
“A brutal Republican primary gives them their best shot to rebuild,” said Robert Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University. “In essence, what happens in 2022 is a last stand of sorts for Democrats to avoid the state moving from reddish purple to blood red."
The most notable Republican candidates in a crowded field are courting Trump. There's former party chair Jane Timken, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, banker Mike Gibbons, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and car dealer turned tech executive Bernie Moreno. So far, the most prominent Democrat seeking the seat is U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, whose northeastern district includes the city of Youngstown.
The race is as much about Biden as the staying power of Trump. Turnout might decline without Trump on the ballot in 2022, giving a boost to Democrats who can appeal to working-class voters, Alexander said.
“There is no doubt that Republicans in the state are doing their best to mimic Trump both online and in their public events,” he said. “Whether that actually translates to voter turnout is an open question.”
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.