The only Democratic victory came in 2006, a year when the Republican brand was tarnished nationally by unending war and in Ohio by gubernatorial scandal. The GOP also made a gift of a nominee much too conservative for the state's moderate tastes. But Ted Strickland's victory was erased four years later when John Kasich ousted him from office after a single term.
Worse for Ohio Democrats, the carnage extends much deeper down the ticket. After controlling at least one house of the General Assembly and most constitutional offices during Celeste's reign and having some of the offices when Strickland was governor, the picture is bleak today. All the constitutional offices — auditor, treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state — are in Republican hands. And Democrats are at their lowest ebb in modern history (since the one-man, one vote Supreme Court decision in 1965) in the legislature. They hold only 10 seats in the 33-person Senate and 34 in the 99-seat House.
The precipitous decline in party fortunes has been masked by a solid showing in presidential races. Democrats carried the state twice for Bill Clinton and twice for President Obama. But the party has lost the formula for winning at lower levels, and many fault the state party operation.
"The Ohio Democratic Party is basically irrelevant," said Jerry Austin, who was Celeste's political strategist and has been working in or running Ohio campaigns since 1967. Today, Austin is skeptical that a state party apparatus that has atrophied and been so ineffective for more than two decades can come up with a plan to turn things around.
The 44-year-old Pepper, who pointedly notes he was just getting out of high school when the steep decline began, insists he can prove the skeptics wrong. It is time, he told National Journal, to "go back to the basics." That means adopting what he calls his "1618 Plan" to win in both 2016 and 2018 when Kasich is term-limited.
"We aren't just focused on the next election or any individual cycle," he said. "Our goal is to go much deeper to get people energized again, both Democratic and independent voters who have decided in the last decade or so that it is only worth showing up on the presidential Election Day. When they do show up that day, we win."
The drop-off is stunning. Numbers compiled by veteran Ohio Republican strategist Mike Dawson show an amazing 44-percent drop in the number of voters who came out for the presidential election in 2012 and those who came out for the gubernatorial election two years later. There were 5.6 million votes cast for president and only 3.1 million for governor.
Strategists in both parties place much of the blame on Democratic failures to recruit strong or attractive candidates for governor. In the seven gubernatorial contests since 1990, Strickland is the only Democrat to reach 45 percent of the vote. In 1994, the nominee drew an embarrassing 24.9 percent; in 2002, the nominee got 38.3; and last year, nominee Ed FitzGerald ran an inept campaign that could muster only 32.8 percent against an unpopular Kasich.