The court has been in Republican hands for decades, but Democrats' renewed efforts could shift the balance of power.
Franklin County Republican Party chairman Josh Jaffe has never seen a Democratic majority on the Ohio Supreme Court. Jaffe was born in 1988, two years after Republicans won the edge they’ve held ever since. The remarkable fact about those 34 years in power, says University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven, is their majority has hardly been threatened.
Until now. In the 2018 election, when all seven justices were Republican, Democrats Michael P. Donnelly and Melody Stewart won their races, a surprise to many observers. With two more seats up for grabs this November, the court could go from deep red to a Democratic majority in two short years.
What happened? The Supreme Court is nonpartisan, so candidates’ political affiliations don’t appear on the ballot, and for years Democrats didn’t do a good job of informing voters about the party’s judicial candidates, Niven says. When state Democratic chairman David Pepper took the helm in 2015, the party formed a task force to address decades of “woeful results.” Democrats began pushing voter education and recruiting better judicial candidates, and the 2018 success was the result, Pepper says.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Michael Sexton, the Franklin County Democratic chairman, credits the wins to President Trump’s unpopularity with the red suburban voters who turned blue. Jaffe also chalks it up to partisan backlash, saying the first midterm elections typically “are a referendum on the president and his party.”
Now, the 2020 races could swing power leftward. One pits Republican Sharon L. Kennedy against Democrat John P. O’Donnell, who came within a point of winning a Supreme Court seat in 2016. The other contest features Columbus Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Grandview Republican Judith French. Brunner, a former Ohio Secretary of State, has more name recognition than the 2018 Democrats, Pepper says, though he expects a tougher challenge from these Republicans, both incumbents.
Niven speculates that the current surge of mail-in voting will aid Democrats, allowing voters more time with ballots to learn about party affiliation. Jaffe is skeptical of its benefits for either party, instead pointing to the presidential race at the top of the ticket as more likely to sway the outcome. What that means in a year with so many twists and turns, he says, is guesswork at best.
In addition to determining court control, the judicial elections might influence the shape of Ohio’s congressional districts, which have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans and are due for redrawing after the 2020 census. The state’s new redistricting process, approved in 2018, gives the court “added avenues to scrutinize maps,” says Niven, who thinks it’s “virtually certain” that the Ohio Supreme Court will consider gerrymandering questions in the coming term.
The high stakes are reflected in campaign cash. By early September, French and Kennedy had raised over $200,000 more than Republicans did for Supreme Court races in the last presidential election, according to campaign finance records. The Democrats’ fundraising trails considerably, but it’s already higher than in 2018 with two months to go. Brunner has raised more than any Supreme Court Democrat in the previous two cycles, including over $150,000 just from the party.
“It’s a reflection of our commitment to these races,” Pepper says. “We lost races we could have won in the past because the party just didn’t care enough and didn’t understand that in Ohio, the court has huge power, and the stakes of who’s in charge of the court [are] hugely important.”