SHEFFIELD TWP. — Lorain County is often thought of as a Democratic stronghold, and in many ways that reputation is well deserved.
Of the county’s 21 county-level elected officials, only three are Republicans. This election might change those numbers, and nowhere is that possibility clearer than in the battle for the majority of the three-member Lorain County Board of Commissioners, which Democrats have controlled for decades.
The board is made up of two Democrats and one Republican, but the two Democrats, Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski, both face well-funded challengers who are looking to capitalize on the growing Republican base on the eastern side of the county.
According to the Lorain County Board of Elections, there are 37,265 Democrats on the voter rolls, compared with 28,244 Republicans. But the vast majority — 146,774 voters, or 69.1 percent — of the county’s electorate aren’t affiliated with any political party.
Elections board Director Paul Adams said it’s not easy to pin down how many Republicans or Democrats there are in the county because of how Ohio determines party affiliation.
Unlike in some other states where people declare party membership when they register to vote, in order to be a member of a political party in Ohio, you have to have voted in that party’s primary in one of the last two federal elections.
“There’s a lot of people who consider themselves Democrat or Republican, but because they don’t vote in a primary election they don’t technically declare,” Adams, a Democrat, said.
Voter turnout traditionally soars in presidential election years, and Ohio is at the center of this year’s contest between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
That means the top of the ticket could make a big difference in the local races.
The county’s Democrats are far more concentrated than the county’s Republicans are.
The Democrats hold majorities in Amherst, Elyria, Kipton, Lorain, Oberlin, Sheffield Lake, Sheffield, South Amherst, Vermilion and a few of the townships in the north of the county.
The Republicans are spread out in the less-populated areas of the county, ringing the Democratic strongholds. Members of the GOP outnumber Democrats in Avon, Avon Lake, Grafton, LaGrange, North Ridgeville, Wellington and the bulk of the county’s rural townships.
Although the numbers are close in some of those communities, only one village is actually evenly split. Rochester has precisely 26 registered Democrats and 26 registered Republicans.
And while suburban Avon and Avon Lake, for instance, are seen as Republican bastions, Adams noted that there are still Democrats present and their presence is larger that that of Republicans in traditionally Democratic communities.
“The Democrats aren’t overwhelmed like the Republicans are in areas of Elyria, Lorain and Oberlin,” he said.
However, Lorain and Elyria have both seen their populations decline in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lorain had a population of 68,652 in 2000, but the federal government’s population estimate in 2011 put it at 64,152.
Elyria had a smaller decline, dropping from 55,953 residents in 2000 to 54,581 in the 2011 estimate.
In the same timeframe, Avon’s population surged from 11,446 in 2000 to an estimated 21,210 in 2011. Avon Lake’s population was 18,145 in 2000 and the Census Bureau estimated it had grown to 22,602 last year.
Lorain County Republican Party Vice Chairman David Arredondo said the growth on the county’s east side and the population drain of the county’s urban core communities will help Republicans in the coming years.
Adams and Kalo acknowledged that the rise of the eastern side of the county makes them increasingly bigger players in county politics.
“The eastern communities are going to play much more of a role going forward in Lorain County politics,” Adams said.
Kalo, who won 54.5 percent of the vote in 2004 and 60.3 percent in 2008, said that just means running a different race than in previous years.
“It’s more of a targeted campaign than the shotgun approach because the general message doesn’t ring as effective as a targeted message,” he said.
For instance, Kalo said when campaigning in Lorain he’ll talk up his efforts to save St. Joseph Community Center or his work on the county’s recently formed land bank. When in Avon, he said he focuses on his involvement with the fight with Cuyahoga County officials to win approval for the new Interstate 90 interchange now under construction.
“That takes the partisanship out,” he said.
Winning by the numbers
Although the larger communities are dominated by Democrats and have higher populations than many Republican-leaning cities, winning in Lorain or Elyria doesn’t guarantee a Democrat will win the election.
In 2010, then-state Rep. Joe Koziura, D-Lorain, carried his hometown, Elyria, Oberlin, Sheffield Lake and Sheffield Township, but nowhere else in the race to replace then-county Commissioner Betty Blair, a Democrat.
In Lorain, Koziura took 59.9 percent of the vote compared with Amherst Republican Tom Williams’ 28.4 percent.
He still lost.
Williams won every other city, village and township in the county, beating out Koziura and two independents.
Kalo’s Republican opponent, Amherst City Councilman Phil Van Treuren, said he doesn’t need to win Lorain either. He believes if he can carry 35 percent of the vote in the city, he’ll be on his way to winning the county. He has lower expectations for Oberlin, where he’s hoping to take 17 percent of the vote in the county’s most left-leaning town.
Van Treuren is a big believer in “microtargeting” voters with direct mail pieces aimed at winning their support.
He said he’s studied the demographics of county politics and in order to win he has to pick up votes in every community in the county, including the traditionally Democratic ones. He said he intends to spend much of next week going door-to-door in Elyria, which hasn’t been won by a Republican commissioner candidate since 2002.
Van Treuren said the largely Republican townships form a larger voting block than any individual city does. He also said that many of the county’s Democrats are the so-called Reagan Democrats. In his mind that means the county is more evenly split than most believe.
“They’re willing to vote for Republicans,” he said. “It just has to be the right Republican who’s willing to get out and work.”
But Van Treuren is quick to point out that he’s running in a far different political climate than Williams did two years ago. The presidential race will draw out voters who haven’t been to the polls in four years, and Van Treuren sees that as an advantage for him, given the gains made by Republicans two years ago.
“A lot of those people who went Democratic in 2008 have swung back to the Republican column, so Democrats are going to have to work harder for the townships,” Van Treuren argued.
Columbia Township Trustee Mike Musto, the Republican challenging Kokoski this year, said he believes his base is the largely rural townships, which are key to him winning on Election Day. But he also said Kokoski has done well in the townships in the past.
Kokoksi carried virtually every township in 2008, but in 2004 she carried only the townships that have leaned Democratic in other recent elections.
Kokoski’s 2008 success — she took 62 percent of the vote that year — is an example of how critical the top of the ticket can be for local candidates. Obama took 58 percent of the vote in Lorain County four years ago, picking up some communities that voted for the Republican candidates in the previous two presidential elections.
Musto said he he’s been campaigning throughout the county, not just in the townships or other areas where Republicans have traditionally done well. He said Republicans running in countywide races can’t afford to focus only on their base.
“I’m not going to minimize a single voter,” he said. “We need every one.”
Hometowns and swingtowns
Van Treuren and Musto both said they believe they’ll do well in their hometowns based on their records there. It’s worked before, particularly for Amherst Republicans.
Williams and the county’s only other recent Republican commissioner, David Moore, were both from Amherst and carried the city, which has traditionally been a swing community in commissioner elections.
But winning Amherst doesn’t win the county. Nick Brusky, another former Amherst councilman, lost to Kalo in 2008 even through he carried his hometown.
Kalo, who took Amherst in 2004, said he intends to challenge Van Treuren on his home turf.
“I have a lot of support in Amherst,” he said.
Residency isn’t always a guarantee for winning a particular area.
Blair, a Democrat, lives in Carlisle Township, but didn’t win the township in her successful reelection bids in 2000 and 2004. And Musto’s Columbia Township, which has been solidly in the Republican column in previous presidential elections, has voted for Democrats in five of the past nine commissioner elections.
There are other communities, such as Brownhelm Township and North Ridgeville that tend to jump to different sides of the political landscape as well. North Ridgeville voted Democratic in the 2000 presidential election before going Republican in 2004. It went for Obama in 2008.
Brownhelm, on the other hand, was in the GOP column in 2000, went Democratic in 2004 and switched back to the Republican side in 2008.
Arredondo believes that the shifting political climate favors Republicans this year.
“If you want to talk about trends, we were running in the right direction and then in 2006, 2008, we got crushed,” he said. “But we were back on the upswing in 2010.”
Arredondo said he believes that Lorain County will be critical if Romney is to win the crucial swing state of Ohio, although he doesn’t expect the Republican to carry the county.
Democrats need to win big in the large counties and cities throughout the state, including Cuyahoga County and Lorain County, that form their base in order to cancel out the votes of Ohio’s Republican-leaning counties, Arredondo argued.
“Anytime a Democrat’s 55-45 in one of those counties, they’re not going to win the state,” he said.
Arredondo also wonders how much voter turnout will hurt the Democrats. He said the areas that tend to back Democrats in the county also have lower voter turnout than core Republican areas.
The statistics tend to back up his hypothesis. For instance, in 2010 gubernatorial election, Avon had voter turnout of 63.4 percent while 55.4 percent of Avon Lake’s registered voters showed at the polls.
But two years ago in Elyria 43.4 percent of registered voters showed up. In Lorain the figure was 41 percent. Oberlin had voter turnout of 34.5 percent in 2010.
The countywide voter turnout in 2010 was 48.9 percent, according to the elections board. It was far higher in 2008, the last presidential election, a trend seen throughout the nation.
According to the elections board, voter turnout four years ago was 72.5 percent in the county.
Avon had a turnout of 78.8 percent and Avon Lake’s turnout was 79.6 percent in 2008.
Again, the Democratic-leaning cities were lower, with Elyria seeing 68.9 percent of its voters show at the polls. Lorain had voter turnout of 65.3 percent, while in Oberlin the figure was 62 percent.
Adams, the Democratic elections board director, said get out the vote efforts are critical for Democrats and Republicans this year.
“Obviously our county leans Democratic, but I think the strategy for either side is getting their base out to vote,” Adams said.
Still, given the population changes the county is seeing, Adams believes Democrats have to focus on the so-called “ground game” more than Republicans this year.
“Voter turnout becomes more and more of a concern for Democrats in the county because our base communities are not growing,” Adams said.
Aaron Pickrell, who servers as a senior adviser on Ohio for the Obama campaign, said the president has an 88-county strategy for winning the state. He said he believes the policies the president has pushed during his first term have led to resurgences in both the auto and steel industries, important sectors in Lorain County.
He also pointed out that both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have made trips to Lorain County this year. Biden was in Lorain for a rally Monday and Obama had an event at Lorain County Community College in April and stopped for a beer at Ziggy’s in Amherst in July. The president also made stops in Lorain County in 2010 and during his primary campaign in 2008.
“We’ll continue to make sure that we focus on Lorain and focus across the state,” Pickrell said.
Romney hasn’t ignored Northern Ohio or Lorain County. He showed up in Lorain a day after Obama’s April appearance at the college, and he and running mate Paul Ryan have made numerous appearances in the greater Cleveland area and the rest of the state. Romney will again visit the county Monday, when he will speak at Avon Lake High School.
Not everyone focuses on the political past to predict their future.
Kokoski said she doesn’t look at polls or demographics, instead relying on God and voters to determine her fate.
“I just go in there and do my job,” she said. “Hopefully, people understand I’m there to serve them.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.