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Because of slow population growth, Ohio is losing two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And because of their statewide sweep last fall, Republicans controlled the process of drawing a new congressional map, which features 12 solidly GOP districts and four that favor Democrats.
Needless to say, the Democrats aren’t fond of their counterparts’ work. They have resisted any deal that doesn’t improve their chances to win more seats and have threatened to take the map to a referendum. After two months of debate, cooler heads have yet to prevail.
Capping a particularly rancorous session on Nov. 3, State Rep. Robert Hagan stood angrily to complain that redistricting was distracting from more urgent problems. "Quite frankly," the Youngstown Democrat said, "I’m left wondering what the hell we are doing down here."
Colorful remarks, indeed. But PolitiFact Ohio was more interested in what Hagan said after the session. In an interview with Marc Kovac, a Statehouse bureau chief for several newspapers, Hagan stressed his preference for a map that better fits the state’s political pedigree.
"The governor won this state with 49 percent," Hagan said of Republican John Kasich’s 2010 victory over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. "We had some of the closest races in the House in history. So you’re not dealing with this 70/30, like they want to make it."
Hagan’s argument, and those similarly made by his fellow Democrats, is that new lines should reflect their belief that Ohio is split about 50/50 between the two parties. A map that favors the GOP in 12 of 16 districts could give Republicans 75 percent of Ohio’s congressional seats.
We decided to take a closer look at the examples Hagan cites as justification for equality.
First, Kasich’s margin of victory has been well-documented. But to cover all bases, we confirmed with the Ohio secretary of state’s office that Kasich received 49 percent of the vote to Strickland’s 47 percent. The remaining four percent went to third-party or write-in candidates.
By mentioning this race, Hagan implied that Ohio is evenly divided. We found Republicans won by five points or more in all but one of the five other statewide contests last year. The exception: Mike DeWine’s 1.28-point victory over incumbent Democratic Attorney General Richard Cordray.
Examining the second part of Hagan’s claim involved more scouring of past election results. In 2010, according to the secretary of state’s website, six Ohio House races featured margins of two points or fewer. All six of these races were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.
The closest was in the 99th District -- Ashtabula County and a slice of Trumbull County -- where Republican Casey Kozlowski beat Democratic Rep. Deborah Newcomb by 137 votes.
Another squeaker came in the Franklin County-encompassing 21st District, where the GOP’s Mike Duffey beat Democrat David Robinson by 377 votes. In Hamilton County, Democratic Rep. Connie Pillich kept her 28th District seat by finishing 602 votes ahead of Republican Mike Wilson.
Hagan confirmed to PolitiFact Ohio that those three were the races he was thinking about when speaking to Kovac. But was 2010 really an anomaly in terms of razor-thin margins of victory?
Our review of Ohio House races dating to 2002 found no contest quite as close as the Kozlowski-Newcomb match. Another six races in 2008 and seven in 2006 were decided by two percentage points or fewer. Three candidates in 2004 won by fewer than 500 votes.
For the sake of context, it’s important to note that the Ohio House has 99 seats, so the half-dozen or so nail-biters are exceptions. Many House elections are blowouts, and some candidates don’t even draw an opponent. It’s also important to point out that in the six tight races in 2010, Democrats and Republicans split the seats, with three going to each party.
The makeup of the House today is 59 Republicans, 40 Democrats. That’s more like 60/40 than 50/50. If Democrats had won all six of the close races, the makeup would be 56-43.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect accounting for party affiliation in Ohio. Voters here do not specify party when registering -- only when voting in a primary. But that’s an unreliable measure of true political identity. Republicans are known to cross over into Democratic primaries and vice versa, particularly during hotly contested battles for a party’s presidential nomination.
PolitiFact Ohio decided to take a look at Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s turnout numbers anyway. Of those who voted in the 2010 primaries, 48 percent cast Republican ballots, while 42 percent cast Democratic ballots. So even by this measure, there is no evidence of a 50/50 split.
Our best guess is that the 50/50 talk is part anecdotal, part wishful thinking. Ohio is known as a swing state with fickle tastes. In a four-year stretch, voters here elected to the U.S. Senate a known liberal in Sherrod Brown and a known conservative in Rob Portman. The state went for Democrat Bill Clinton twice in the 1990s, twice for Republican George W. Bush in the aughts, then for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. But since 1991, Republicans have occupied the governor’s chair with the exception of the four years that Strickland served.
Then again, as Hagan correctly noted, Ohio isn’t a 70/30 state, either. His arguments -- and those from his Democratic colleagues -- would benefit from more context, though.
For one, there’s no bulletproof way of suggesting the state is 50/50 -- a claim Hagan did not make explicitly in his comments to Kovac. Hagan instead implicitly pointed to results of two elections as proof of Ohio’s political parity: Kasich’s narrow gubernatorial victory and a batch of close Ohio House races. Regarding the latter, Hagan remarked on "some of the closest races in the House in history." It is clear that several of those battles match that description.
On the Truth-O-Meter, we rate his claim Mostly True.
The Plain Dealer, "New congressional map rolled out," Nov. 3, 2011
Ohio Capital Blog, Rep. Bob Hagan’s remarks after heated House session, posted to YouTube Nov. 3
Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, official 2010 election results; Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, official Ohio House of Representatives results from 2010, 2008, 2006, 2004 and 2002
Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, 2010 primary voter turnout by party, via email
Telephone interview with Rep. Bob Hagan, Nov. 11, 2011
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