How Ohio Democrats Got Their Groove Back

A rising economy, the brutal Republican primary and a resurgent culture war have weary swing-state activists feeling better than they have since 2008.

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COLUMBUS, OHIO -- A few months ago, it would have been hard to believe a roomful of swing-state Democrats would be feeling this good. But the activists who gathered here for the Ohio Democratic Party's Legacy Dinner on Friday were in a positively jubilant mood.

"There is a war going on against women in America," warned Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor ousted in the 2010 Republican tsunami. "The Republicans are attacking our women, and we're not going to put up with it -- are we, men?" A cheer rose from the 1,000 well-dressed party regulars in the elegant Art Deco hall.

As speaker after speaker hit this note, from legislators to labor leaders to the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, one thing was obvious: The recent resurgence of the culture war has fired up Democrats. Gone is the forlorn mood of many Democratic gatherings in recent memory. Eight months before Election Day, buoyed as well by the improving economy and the GOP's messy primary, Democrats are starting to feel almost like it's 2008 again.

The surge of enthusiasm comes at a crucial time for President Obama's reelection hopes. While the GOP bickers, the president's formidable grass-roots operation has sought to get a head start on the eventual Republican nominee.

In Ohio, Obama's campaign just opened its ninth field office -- in New Philadelphia, half an hour south of Canton. Since officially relaunching in April 2011, the campaign says it has contacted 650,000 Ohioans by phone, at their doorsteps or in one-on-one conversations, and it has held 5,000 events, from phone banks and canvasses to house meetings and public rallies.

But all that legwork might be for naught if Democrats weren't feeling the thrill of four years ago, and until quite recently, 2008 seemed more like the prelude to a cruel letdown than an inspiring precedent. Not anymore.

Strickland -- a fair-haired, ruddy-complected populist who looks younger than his 70 years -- recalled how good it felt when the networks called Ohio for Obama just after 9:30 p.m. on election night 2008. This year, he said, he'd be generous and give them an extra half hour. "By 10 o'clock p.m., Bill O'Reilly on Fox News will be compelled to announce that Ohio has stood for Obama!" he said.

The last few years have been a roller coaster for Ohio Democrats. In 2010, they lost both houses of the state legislature, five seats in Congress and every major statewide office. Strickland, the incumbent governor, lost his bid for a second term.

But 2011 marked something of a comeback. The governor's attempt to limit public workers' collective bargaining rights, known as SB5, went to a ballot referendum, where it was soundly defeated. (At the same time, a ballot measure symbolically rejecting Obama's health-care overhaul was approved, an indication that voters' mood remains mixed.)

Almost to a one, the speakers at the Ohio dinner touched on four points: the happy memory of 2008; the SB5 fight; the agony of the GOP contenders; and, most rousingly, the current controversy over access to birth control.

The SB5 victory was cited as proof that Democrats could win again. "Ladies and gentlemen, the middle class is under attack, and we're here to fight!" said Eric Kearney, the minority leader of the Ohio state Senate.

Armond Budish, the minority leader in the state House, blamed Republicans for "an unprecedented series of attacks on working people." He foretold a future where "kids sit in classes of 40 or 50 kids, with no sports or band"; where "Mom's in a nursing home and when she presses that call button, nobody comes"; where the natural landscape is despoiled by fracking; and where "no one in the state can get a job unless they're a friend or crony of [Gov.] John Kasich."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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