Can a Democrat Still Win in Appalachia? Ted Strickland Is About to Find Out.

Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Senate rest partly on whether the former Ohio governor can still win the largely white, working-class communities he once carried—or whether that appeal has been consigned to the history books.

Ted Strickland, then the governor of Ohio, speaks during Day Two of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Bloomberg AFP/Getty)

LUCASVILLE, Ohio—Year after year, just as summer starts turning to fall, local Democrats flooded into the Scioto County fairgrounds for Ted Strickland’s birthday party. The tradition has been on pause since 2010, but this month, the people, the band, even the decades-old campaign signs decorating the walls—dug out of garages and dusted off for reuse—all came back, for the first time in five years, to greet the former governor in Southeast Ohio as he attempts a political comeback.

But much has changed since Strickland, now running for Senate against Republican incumbent Rob Portman, first represented this area in Congress more than 20 years ago. Outside of the folks gathered at the fairground on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, fellow Democrats are harder to come by. On the highway leading to the fairgrounds, Strickland’s brother Roger noted passing cars with Confederate flags on display.

“They’ve probably never even been down South,” Roger Strickland grumbled. “We’re almost like a foreign country these days, once you go below Chillicothe.”

Ted Strickland started his political career when Democrats still drew strength from Appalachia, before Republicans methodically repainted the culturally conservative region a deep shade of red. Even as Strickland lost his reelection campaign for governor in 2010, he still won 17 of Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties in a year when voters there fired most other Democrats running for office. Two years later, President Obama lost all but four of those counties to Mitt Romney.

The promise and peril of Strickland’s Senate campaign lies here, in Southeast Ohio. Strickland’s demonstrated ability to pull votes from the Republican-trending region could be a huge boon in Democrats’ quest to retake the Senate majority. But it’s not so simple for a Democrat in the Obama era. The national party’s leftward march on social and cultural issues could leave even Strickland—one of Democrats’ greatest remaining ambassadors to Appalachia but also a loyal party member who worked for a progressive nonprofit in D.C. after leaving the governor’s mansion—unable to connect with the same voters who once elected him eagerly.

Republicans are fond of pointing out the former governor’s age, 74, calling him “yesterday’s news.” Strickland’s campaign is a test of whether Democrats like him really are thing of the past, or if he can still grab votes across geographical and cultural boundaries.

“I suppose time will tell,” Strickland said simply.

Strickland speaks at his birthday fundraiser. (Andrea Drusch)

When Strickland notched his first congressional victory in 1992, after losing three prior races, his House district ran along Ohio’s southern border. He won narrowly that year, lost reelection in the 1994 Republican wave despite bucking the Clinton administration on gun control and NAFTA, and then won the district back in 1996. Strickland increased his margin of victory every two years after that; in his final House run in 2004, Republicans didn’t even put up a candidate.

As the district’s boundaries shifted, Strickland ended up representing almost the whole of Southeast Ohio at one time or another. His unusual success in some of the most Republican-leaning portions of Ohio is what got Democrats like David Leland thinking about running Strickland for governor.

“I thought that if we could do what we normally do in Democratic areas, and then do better than Democrats historically do in areas that he used to represent in Congress, which was basically two whole districts, then we would win the election—quite simple,” said Leland, who chaired the Ohio Democratic Party from 1995 to 2002.

And they did: Strickland won more than 60 percent of the vote for governor in 2006. Even when he lost four years later, unusual strength in the region nearly saved him from defeat at the hands of Republican John Kasich. The National Rifle Association endorsed Strickland for reelection that year.

“It’s true that I think I have perhaps an advantage in this region that others don’t, simply because I have been at it a long time,” Strickland said, sitting at an old picnic table as the band packed up after his birthday fundraiser. “In the past, I have been able to communicate with gun owners, I have been able to communicate with coal miners—with folks who may have conservative social views about a lot of things. But I think they have always seen me as someone who is on their side, someone who cares about them and their opportunities in life, need for education, job opportunities.”

Of course, one-time House Democrats like Zack Space and the late Charlie Wilson, the man who replaced Strickland in Congress, could have said the same thing, but that didn’t stop voters from booting them in 2010. Two years later, those voters handed Wilson another defeat, and by a wider margin, when he tried to take his seat back in 2012, a much more favorable year for Democrats nationally.

“The No. 1 issue I heard and I heard countless times is, 'Charlie is a friend of mine, but he’s voting with [then-House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and Obama,'” said Christian Palich, the president of the Ohio Coal Association. Palich served as the political director for Rep. Bill Johnson, the Republican who unseated Wilson in 2010. “No matter what, you’re going to have this national issue where the Democratic Party went the way of Tom Steyer and the Sierra Club.”

Plus, neither Wilson nor Space went to work for a liberal think tank before their campaigns.

Strickland, right, hosts a discussion on Obamacare with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell at the Center for American Progress in 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News)

After leaving the governor’s office in 2010 and spending a few years consulting, Strickland moved to Washington to become the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of a major progressive think tank. CAP has employed many current and former officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and it has been an aggressive advocate for much of President Obama’s policy agenda, including stricter gun-control laws and combating climate change.

And Strickland isn’t merely tied to these issues by association with CAP. Since leaving office, he’s come out in favor of background checks for gun purchasers and discussed in depth the dangers of climate change. Most recently, he told National Journal that he likely would not support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a hot-button issue for business, labor, energy, and environmental groups that he has long declined to take a position on.

Strickland may still have a rapport with local gun owners and coal miners, but he has drifted to the left of where he once stood on their issues. When Strickland declared his Senate candidacy this spring, both the Ohio Coal Association and local Buckeye Firearms Association quickly put out disapproving statements.

“When he ran for governor, my friends badgered the daylight out of me, said ‘Strickland is going to be terrible on guns,’” said Jim Irvine, the president of Buckeye Firearms. “I said, 'You guys are totally missing the boat; he’s a gun guy, he helped put food on the table for a family that sometimes went hungry with a gun.' I was a very staunch supporter of him because I knew his background and his history.”

Irvine, once a prime example of Strickland’s unusually broad base of support, said the Democrat’s switch on background checks was a big turnoff—particularly because Strickland understood their issues and did it anyway.

“He can’t say he got misled,” said Irvine. “He knew this issue really well; he lived it.”

Strickland argues that his support for background checks was not out of line with what many gun-rights advocates want. “Do I believe that we need to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have access to them? I absolutely do,” said Strickland. “That doesn’t mean I’m not a supporter of citizens’ right to have a gun and to use it to protect themselves.”

Then there’s the pushback Strickland faces over Democrats’ aggressive climate agenda, which has taken the blame for a significant loss of coal jobs in Ohio. The Ohio Coal Association in particular has highlighted his work alongside Carol Browner, President Obama’s former environmental adviser, during his time at CAP.

Strickland contends that he spent his time at CAP investing significant resources into researching solutions for the future of the coal industry. “I believe climate change is a problem; we’ve got to transition,” Strickland said. “But there’s lots of reasons why coal-mine jobs have been lost.”

He’s in favor of stopping coal imports and raising royalties. “That would bring in, we believe, according to the research that was done at CAP, about a billion dollars per year. And then that billion dollars ought to be used to help these communities adjust to the loss of jobs in the coal fields,” said Strickland. “That may not be as succinct as ‘war on coal,’ but I think people can deal with the truth.”

The Portman campaign says it’s ready to strike on both issues. “We look forward to talking to voters about what Ted Strickland was doing in Washington,” said Portman campaign manager Corry Bliss. “When people learn that he was paid $250,000 a year to move to Washington to run President Obama’s war on coal ... it's going to be difficult to find a single person willing to vote for Ted Strickland in Southeast Ohio.”

Ted Strickland is still beloved by some in Southeast Ohio, where a billboard notes his childhood home. (Andrea Drusch)

Obama proved in 2012 that Democrats don’t need to win large swathes of Southeast Ohio anymore to win the whole state. But cobbling together a few extra percentage points from the old Strickland coalition could mean the difference between a win and a loss in one of the nation’s most tightly divided swing states. Strickland’s personal connections might still be worth that much.

“I think I can relate to them better than Rob Portman can,” said Strickland, who spent part of his childhood in the area living in a chicken coop, after a fire took his family’s home. “You saw these folks here—there are no millionaires.”

Indeed, at a fundraiser the next day in Hamilton, local Democrats held a live auction to help Strickland fight off the outside attacks already flowing in from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Koch brothers-backed groups. Among the bigger-ticket items: a hand-stitched afghan, a homemade blackberry cake, a signed copy of a John Glenn book. It’s not your usual big-ticket political fare, but Strickland has long had a knack for getting people involved.

“When Ted Strickland announced he was running, I received calls from people I have not seen active in elections in the past eight years,” said Lou Gentile, a state senator who got his start in politics as Strickland’s driver.

“We’ve had a decline in the number of Democrats, there’s no doubt about it,” said Judy Newman, one of the birthday party organizers who has worked on Strickland’s campaigns since he was in the House of Representatives. But “Ted continues to win,” Newman said. “There are a lot of Republicans in this area who don’t vote for any other Democrat, but they vote for Ted Strickland.”

Yet even that inclination has faded among some.

Jeff Albrecht, a Portsmouth hotel owner who several years back hosted Strickland’s first gubernatorial campaign launch party, said he had high hopes about sending a local to the governor’s office. But Albrecht ended up disappointed by Strickland’s accomplishments for the area. He is supporting Portman for reelection.

“Ted’s a nice guy, and I always just thought, 'Wow, if somehow he were elected governor, it would really help our area,'” said Albrecht. “We’re kind of a very poor part of the state.… Unemployment is high and family income is very low. But once he became governor, it seemed like he completely forgot about his hometown.... He didn’t really do anything to help.”

Andrew Hounshell, a leader with the International Association of Machinists Local 1943, has watched up-close as Democrats’ fortunes waned in the region. With every passing year, it has been more difficult to get union members to back the party, regardless of Democratic candidates’ labor records.

Yet Strickland, he noted, still has a picture up in the union hall from the time he visited during their lockout, nearly a decade ago. Perhaps enough good feelings have lingered, along with that picture, to give Senate Democrats a boost next year.

“If you look at how folks traditionally go around here, it’s a very red part of the state,” Hounshell said. “It’s tough to climb away from those wedge issues. But when you have that kind of connection during that emotional time, people remember that.”