(CNN) Democrats are targeting black voters in the battleground state of Ohio as key to victory in a state they lost to President Donald Trump in 2016.
The months-long effort was highlighted when former President Barack Obama made a stop in Cleveland last week to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, where he delivered a plea for voters to turnout on Election Day. In addition to the governor’s race, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is running for re-election and there are competitive congressional races that could be key to determining which party controls the House.
“The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference,” Obama told a packed gymnasium. “The biggest threat to our democracy is where you just turn away from politics and you stay home on Election Day.”
Before Trump’s victory in 2016, Obama carried the state with 97% of the black vote in 2008 and 96% in 2012, according to exit polls. Hillary Clinton lost the state with 88% of the black vote. A major question going forward for Democrats is whether they can count on the support of black voters who turned out in a historic way to vote for the country’s first black president.
And particularly in Ohio, where the Democrats running for governor and US Senate are white men, November’s election will be a test for the party as to what type of candidates, message and efforts can appeal to the black community.
Ohio Democrats are taking lessons from last year’s Alabama Senate race, where long-shot former Democratic prosecutor Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore with the support of black voters.
“We learned from the Doug Jones special election that local community members are the best validators,” said Democratic party official Ron McGuire, who held roundtables across Ohio in January to hear from black voters.
A former deputy district director for US Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, McGuire said voters felt excluded from the process.
“They weren’t getting information from the state party as they would like to,” he said. “They didn’t feel like they were a part of it. Nobody knew what they were supposed to do or how they could help.”
Meredith Turner, an Ohio Democratic consultant tasked with party outreach to churches, said in the past Democrats haven’t hired partners who reflected the community they represented. “There was a detachment,” Turner told CNN. “If you can’t relate to people it might be hard to get them motivated and encouraged to come out and participate.”
In response, the party created the Minority Engagement Program, led by McGuire and consultants from local communities, to inform voters about upcoming elections and facilitate increased voter registration, all in an effort to get them to the polls.
“I got faith leaders, business owners, I have an attorney, I got former elected officials and I got community leaders to help us lead these efforts in our major communities throughout Ohio,” McGuire told CNN.
Kim Thomas, owner of Christopher Amira Studio in Cleveland, joined the program in June, drafting other local Cuyahoga County barbershops and salons to stock campaign pamphlets and host candidate meet and greets for prospective voters.
“The only way this whole thing is going to change is if we get everyone involved,” Thomas said. “That’s the most important thing that I can say we are working on, just making sure we work collectively and bring everyone together so we can create this blue wave. The blue wave is not going to happen unless we come together.”
Republicans in Ohio say they plan to make a play for traditionally Democratic and swing voters across Ohio.
“I do believe Democrats continue to take some historically blue communities for granted,” Ohio Republican Communications Director Blaine Kelly told CNN. “These voters have found a new home in the Republican Party.”
Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken told reporters Thursday, “When I first became chairman, I started an initiative where I just would go to urban areas like Cincinnati and Cleveland and have listening sessions with African-American business owners and others who were interested in hearing our message. And my message back to them was, you care about your communities, you care about your families, we welcome you into the Republican party and want to be a part of that care and concern for your communities and your families in Ohio.”
Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Howse, who spoke ahead of Obama at Thursday’s rally, said she hopes the former president’s visit will get voters excited about campaigning for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot not just in 2018, but also moving forward.
“Democrats are not successful without a strong black community turnout. Those are facts,” Howse told CNN. “We don’t have any votes to lose. We’ve had elections, we have new people in office winning by eight votes, 13 votes. So you have to remind people when you talk about every election is important, every election is important, and the voice specifically of black people.”
This article was originally published by CNN on September 16, 2018.
CNN reporters Donald Judd and Jasmine Wright contributed to this story.