About two weeks out from Election Day, a dozen United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers came out to the small eastern city of Warren, Ohio. They were there to support the Democratic ticket for governor, Richard Cordray and his running mate Betty Sutton.
An abandoned guard shack and an RG Steel sign were the only clues that a steel plant — once employing up to 5,000 people — once stood behind the chain-link fence.
Nearing the end of a tight race, the Cordray campaign is focusing on places like Warren, nearby Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley. This rural, white working-class part of the state supported Barack Obama in 2012 but made a dramatic swing toward Donald Trump in 2016.
Cordray went to small businesses and union members to deliver a message meant to win those votes back.
“What you do if you’re running for office in Ohio, you need to understand what’s on people’s minds,” Cordray said. “And for us, that’s protecting access to affordable health care, improving education and training, and spreading out opportunity across the state.”
‘Let’s Not Talk Too Much About It’
One thing that didn’t come up at the Cordray rally: guns.
Several national polls have shown unprecedented support for gun control measures. In a race as close as this one, many Democrats would use that to their advantage.
Ohio’s gun laws fall on the permissive end of the spectrum. As a ‘shall issue’ state, it is easier to get a concealed carry permit than in some states. Ohio doesn’t have additional restrictions on gun purchases beyond federal requirements, as some states do. And in 2007, the state legislature took away cities’ authority to enact gun restrictions.
A sign reads “Save Our Guns Trump” outside a gun shop near Youngstown, Ohio, seen here October 2018. This rural, working-class part of the state supported Barack Obama in 2012 but made a dramatic swing toward Donald Trump in 2016.
Matthew Richmond / ideastream
Cordray’s platform does call for some gun control measures including universal background checks, banning certain gun accessories and a few other policies. But it’s a far cry from March for Our Lives.
“I think we should have reasonable measures that would make sure we keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, domestic violence abusers,” Cordray said. “And I think most Ohioans would agree with that, including gun owners.”
Cordray’s reticence to focus on guns stems from a widespread fear of the gun lobby’s ability to swing races in Ohio, according to Dave Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron.
“In recent history here in Ohio, I think Democrats have approached [gun control] as a ‘let’s not talk too much about it’ type of approach,” said Cohen.
Democrats say they need to attract former Trump voters if they’re going to win a tight race and in a place like Mahoning Valley, there’s not much support for strict gun control measures.
Cordray’s Gun Rights Past
And then there’s Cordray’s history on the topic.
“When he ran for attorney general, one of the things he boasted about was the fact that he had an ‘A+’ rating from the NRA,” Cohen said.
That race for Ohio attorney general was in 2010, and he lost to his opponent in this year’s governor race, Mike DeWine.
During that campaign, Cordray — a Democrat — spoke at a gun rights rally in front of the statehouse in Columbus and attacked DeWine’s record on guns, which garnered him an “F.”
But, according to Cohen, for Ohio Democrats in 2018, things have changed, forcing Cordray to change too.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Cordray especially to move further left in the wake of gun violence in schools,” said Cohen.
The Mahoning Valley’s Tim Ryan Looks Beyond Ohio On Guns
Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan speaking at a Moms Demand Action meeting Oct. 20, 2018 in Akron, Ohio.
Matthew Richmond / ideastream
Rep. Tim Ryan represents the Mahoning Valley. He, too, was formerly rated with an “A” from the NRA.
During a recent appearance at a local chapter meeting of the gun-control-advocacy group Moms Demand Action, Ryan joked about the “F” rating he has now.
“Alright remember, ‘F’s’ are good, ‘A’s’ are bad,” said Ryan.
Ryan, during an interview afterward, said he’s gotten some backlash in the Mahoning Valley for his new pro-gun control stance.
“A lot of the guys, when I changed my position, they got angry,” Ryan said.
But the eight-term Congressman has career plans that reach beyond Ohio.
In 2016, Ryan tried to unseat Nancy Pelosi as the party’s leader in Congress. He lost 63 to 134, but it raised his profile in the party. And there is always the possibility of a national campaign in 2020. Ryan is betting that having a group like Moms Demand Action, which is part of the Michael Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety, on his side can help a Democrat with national ambitions.
Eight days before Election Day, Cordray and his running mate Betty Sutton were back in Youngstown, in Ryan’s district, for a rally with former Vice President Joe Biden.
Joe Biden called Rep. Tim Ryan up to the stage at a rally for Democratic candidates in Youngstown on Oct. 29, 2018.
Matthew Richmond / ideastream
The rally at Youngstown State University attracted a room full of young, adoring Biden supporters. The former Vice President played up his blue-collar, Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots and charged Republicans with siding with corporations over working people.
The event was also held just two days after a mass shooting 70 miles away at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
None of the speakers at a rally full of Democratic candidates made any mention of gun control.
Update 11/7/2018 2:18 p.m.: Despite late polls showing either a tied race or a slight lead for Cordray, Republican Mike DeWine won by about 4 percent or 180,000 votes.
Late ads from the DeWine campaign warned of a return to the difficult economic times of the Great Recession, before Republican controlled the state. In addition, popular current governor John Kasich, who came into office in 2010, endorsed DeWine late in the race and President Donald Trump held a rally in Ohio the weekend before Election Day.
A turnout of over 50 percent in Democratic stronghold Cuyahoga County, and a strong showing in the Mahoning Valley, wasn’t enough to push Cordray over the top.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.