Can Republicans Ever Win The Mayor’s Office Again?

Republicans may be locked out of the mayor’s office, but they still hold the keys.

On May 2, Cincinnati voters will choose from the following options in the 2017 mayoral primary: a moderate Democratic incumbent; two challengers from the left; and, for the second election in a row, not a single Republican.

Illustration by Matt Chase

In a way, this may be a blessing for the Queen City GOP. The closest they came to a candidate was Charlie Winburn, a longtime Republican trying to balance his term-limited stint on city council with his own, less limited ambitions. In February, he announced that his own private polling data suggested he’d make current mayor John Cranley sweat. “If I run, John Cranley and Charlie Winburn will come out of the primary,” Winburn told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Cranley beats me in the general election 52 to 48.”

An eccentric like Winburn—who frequently cites his own polls (without ever sharing the evidence) and lost his 2014 state senate race by 12,000 votes—is probably Cincinnati’s only chance at a Republican running for mayor, at least in the near future. Here’s some actual data: In last year’s presidential election, Hillary Clinton thumped Donald Trump inside city limits, 100,866 votes to 28,797. That kind of margin discourages most self-respecting Republicans from attempting citywide office. None have even sniffed Cincinnati’s top public job since it morphed into a “strong” mayor in 1999.

Lopsided politics is not merely a Cincinnati issue. Across the country, it’s harder to find an urban Republican mayor than a local fan who splits allegiance between UC and XU. Big cities used to elect “law-and-order” conservatives like Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Rudolph Giuliani in New York; as recently as 2000, six of the country’s dozen largest cities featured Republican mayors. Today that number has fallen to one.

There are a number of forces behind this shift, mostly flowing from the increasing anger, partisanship, and polarization brewing on both sides of the aisle. The easier way to sum things up is that, more than ever, Republican vs. Democrat really means rural vs. urban. This realignment started in the 1950s with racially motivated white flight, continued through the 1980s with divisive social issues like abortion, and lives on in the retrograde nationalism of Trump. Today, geography is destiny: Polls (real ones!) show liberals prefer smaller houses, walkable neighborhoods, and cosmopolitan culture.

For all of these reasons, Cincinnati is getting bluer and bluer. You could see it in last fall’s Hamilton County Commissioner and Clerk of Courts races, and in the Democrats’ string of mayoral dominance. But before the local left gloats too much, it’s important to address two potential downsides.

The first—a stifling, one-sided government—is less pressing here than you might initially think. There’s no question Cincinnati’s policy debates are stronger when they include a sane conservative viewpoint. (The same thing’s true for the country as a whole.) But the city still makes room for multiple perspectives. Cranley famously opposed the streetcar and received support from several Republican donors during his 2013 race, and has now drawn two progressive primary challengers in Yvette Simpson and Rob Richardson Jr. Voters have ideological options, if not clear partisan ones. That’s enough, especially in a city like Cincinnati with its plucky, Charterite legacy.

The second downside is more significant. While Democrats are winning urban voters like never before, the same is true for Republicans in rural areas. Hillary might have won Cincinnati and Hamilton County, but Trump still won the state.

Thanks to demographics and voting patterns, rural and far-flung suburban voters tend to win more than their share of statehouse influence—evidenced in part by Ohio having a Republican in the governor’s office for 22 of the last 26 years. The upshot of this tilt is that our cities enjoy shockingly little independence. In recent years, state Republicans have stepped in to block Buckeye cities from guaranteeing sick leave and setting their own minimum wage. Another bill currently percolating in Columbus would crack down on sanctuary cities.

Legislation like that, fostered by an ugly, anti-Federalist vibe permeating the land, has a very real impact on local politics. The same changes making lefties stronger inside City Hall are making them weaker outside the I-275 loop. And in the end, a mayor, even a strong one, is still no match for a governor.

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