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.