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Election losses continue to haunt Democratic Party leader Betras

By David Skolnick

Friday, January 18, 2019

Defeat smacked Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras in the face pretty hard in 2014 and it hasn’t gotten much better since.

During that year’s general election, Democrats lost a county executive office election – for auditor – for the first time in about 30 years.

The situation was out of the ordinary.

The incumbent, Democrat Michael Sciortino, was under indictment – and would later plead to two felonies and three misdemeanors in separate cases in Cuyahoga and Mahoning counties common pleas courts.

He lost by about 4 percent to Republican Ralph T. Meacham.

Betras was livid. The day after Sciortino’s defeat, Betras told me that Sciortino “hurt and tarnished our brand.”

A loss in the county probate court judicial race was another blow.

Betras also had unkind words for Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic Party’s 2014 gubernatorial candidate who imploded and ended up getting crushed by Republican John Kasich. It was so bad that Kasich not only won Mahoning County, a Democratic stronghold, but did so by 11 percent.

The entire Democratic statewide ticket was defeated leading to the resignation of then-party Chairman Chris Redfern.

New leadership took over with David Pepper selected as chairman, and a plan was put in place to make Democrats competitive again.

Not that it was Pepper’s fault, but the usually-competitive presidential election in Ohio, wasn’t close.

Republican Donald Trump easily beat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

And in the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Republican Rob Portman had no trouble defeating Democrat Ted Strickland, a former governor.

Clinton edged Trump in Mahoning County, but again the once-reliable Democratic county showed signs of not being blue anymore.

Betras had warned the Clinton campaign before the election that its message was wrong and that it needed to appeal to working-class voters. Betras’ plea was ignored, but Clinton wasn’t going to resonate with enough of those voters regardless of how she campaigned.

The 2018 election was supposed to be different.

Democrats had a strong statewide ticket and all five of the executive branch positions – governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer – were open with no incumbents running.

However, Republicans won every seat just as they have every four years – except in 2006 – since 1990.

While the Democratic candidates won Mahoning County, the margins of victory were hardly overwhelming.

After the election, Betras said the days of Democrats counting on getting 65 percent of the vote in Mahoning “are over. I still think Democrats win here, but we’re going to have to work for it.”

It’s not just Mahoning County.

A lot of former Democratic counties have either gotten a lot less blue, such as Trumbull, or have become red, such as Jefferson and Belmont.

But what makes it sting even more in Mahoning is the only state House and Ohio Senate seats held by Democrats that went Republican in the 2018 election were in that county.

Republican Don Manning won the Ohio House 59th District race in southern Mahoning County.

Republican Michael Rulli lost by about 7,000 votes in Mahoning County for the Ohio Senate 33rd District race, but won by about 13,000 votes in Columbiana County.

After the election, Betras told me: “It’s very shocking. Mahoning County is leaning more red than it is leaning blue. I think Donald Trump has changed the whole dynamic. The national brand is tarnished. We have to regroup and figure out how to rebrand ourselves and separate ourselves from the national Democrats.”

So what did Betras do last week?

He sent a letter to fellow county Democratic Party chairmen/chairwomen calling for new state party leadership.

Betras called the party’s 2018 plan “fatally flawed” and “it means that the people who crafted those incredibly flawed plans can’t be left at the helm.”

He also said, “Usually when you lose this much, you change coaches.”

Pepper said he has no plans to resign.

When asked for further comment, he had Kirstin Alvanitakis, the party’s spokeswoman, respond with a not-so-subtle takedown of Betras.

“We were all frustrated by the governor’s race results, and there is certainly added Democratic frustration in the [Mahoning] Valley because of the state House and state Senate losses there as we picked up seats in other parts of the state,” she said. “We’ve been getting valuable feedback from stakeholders and party leaders since the election, and we welcome Dave’s thoughts as well.”

I doubt the party welcomes Betras’ thoughts as he’s already shared them and his growing public frustration – including on social media – has essentially alienated him from many of its leaders.