Despite 'red wave,' Portage County remains independent, politics watchers say

Diane Smith
Record-Courier
Amanda Suffecool, GOP chairwoman, at the Republican headquarters in Ravenna.

Portage County races went decidedly for GOP candidates in last week's election, but local political observers, including Republicans, are hesitant to describe the county as solidly red.

Republicans took every contested race on their ballot in Portage County, from the presidential race down the ballot. They elected GOP candidates for county sheriff, both county commissioner races and county recorder.

In the presidential race, voters followed the trend of the state and solidly backed President Donald Trump, who gained 10,000 more votes in the county than his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

They also appear to have elected Republicans to represent them in Columbus, although one of those races is still in question.

Just 1,164 votes separate State Rep. Randi Clites, a Democrat, from her opponent, Republican Gail Pavliga, in the race for the 75th district of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Although thousands of absentee ballots were counted on election day, elections officials reported that 1,349 ballots were not submitted and could have been in the mail. And 1,866 provisional ballots had been cast by voters whose eligibility was in question. Ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 2 and are received by Nov. 13 can be counted.

Clites said she will be watching the final vote closely because there is a possibility that those remaining ballots could affect her race.

"Every voice matters in this community," she said.

State Rep seat mostly blue

For most of the history of Portage County's 75th district, a Democrat has held that seat. Only two times in the past was the seat represented by Republicans, both women from Aurora. That city, as well as other communities in the northern part of the county, is no longer part of the district.

Ann Womer Benjamin, who is now mayor of Aurora, served as state representative from 1994 to 2002. At that time, she said, she was more familiar with the county's voting patterns than she is today.

"I would say every voter I have encountered in Portage County tends to be focused on issues, and different issues are important to different voters in different parts of the county," she said.

When Womer Benjamin served in Columbus, the statehouse had just flipped to Republican. In order to be an effective representative, she said it requires strong leadership from leaders of both parties. 

Pavliga said voters "soundly" declared with their ballots that they want a conservative approach in Columbus. She said many told her they were upset at the "anarchy" they're seeing in other parts of the country, and are worried about how COVID-19 is affecting jobs and businesses.

She hopes to approve a law forbidding the state from shutting down a business without advance notice, compensating business owners for their losses when that doesn't happen. She talked about the need to "safely" reopen Ohio.

"The key word here is safety," she said.

Clites said because she represented the minority party, she said it was important to gain bipartisan support.

"She has no idea how hard it's going to be," she said of Pavliga.

Independent Portage

All villages and townships, as well as three of Portage County's cities, have non-partisan local elections. So unless voters participate in state or national primaries, they don't have to declare a party.

That explains why the majority of voters are considered independent. And often, they tend to vote that way, electing a mix of candidates from both parties.

This time, however, voters tended to vote down the ballot, with a similar number of ballots cast for presidential candidates also cast for their counterparts down the ballot.

Amanda Suffecool, chairwoman of the Portage County Republican Party, said 88 percent of Portage voters are independent. However, she said, local candidates rode a wave of support for the president in winning the race.

"We are 100 percent behind Donald Trump in Ohio, and Portage County was really behind Donald Trump," she said. That, she added, is why many local residents are "bewildered" at what they're seeing as they watch results come in from other states.

She said Pavliga will be able to look to Diane Grendell, the Republican state representative who was re-elected in the nearby 76th district, for guidance. 

"We in Portage County are lucky to have both of these women representing us," she said.

Dr. Dean DePerro, chairman of the county's Democratic party, said the vast majority of votes in the county are independent, and that remains true despite the results of this election.

"Two presidential elections do not make this county red," he said.

Voters, he said, are just as likely to turn out at a subsequent election and support Democrats

"There are still a good number of Democrats elected in this county," he said. He added that he was proud of the work Democrats did during the campaign, focusing on public service and positive messages during their campaign.

"I'm proud of the work they did," he said. "I don't think you've seen the last of our candidates. They're going to stay involved, moving our ideals forward."

GOP Majority of commissioners

The Portage County Board of Commissioners has had a majority of Democrats for many years, sometimes with all of its members from that party.

The last time Republicans had a majority on the panel was the 1980s, when Janet Esposito was elected to serve alongside Republican Nancy Hansford. Chris Smeiles, a Democrat, rounded out the panel.

Sabrina Christian-Bennett, an incumbent Portage County commissioner who survived a challenge from Democrat John Kennedy, will be joined on the panel by Tony Badalamenti, a Republican who defeated Democrat Kathleen Clyde, the appointed incumbent.

Christian-Bennett said most issues the commissioners consider aren't partisan, saying she has only been outvoted a couple of times as a commissioner, and it generally doesn't work when any commissioner has a strongly partisan agenda.

Nonetheless, she was "on cloud 9" the day after the election, and was looking forward to serving alongside Badalamenti, hailing his business experience.

During her campaign, she said, she heard a lot of people express concern about national issues, such as immigration and the Supreme Court.

Badalamenti said he spoke to many voters during his campaign who described themselves as former Democrats. 

"A lot of people who described themselves as lifelong Democrats really aren't happy with the direction the party is going," he said. "This is not the Democratic Party they recognize."

Esposito echoed many others in describing voters as independent-minded people who frequently vote a mixed ticket.

"A lot of people in Portage County are conservative, but not all are Republican," she said. "My husband was a Democrat, but he was a conservative. I've been a Republican all my life, but I've always been the moderate ... I don't think all people in Portage County vote a straight line."