The Democratic Party spent the past decade watching in horror as Ohio, once considered a battleground state, turned reliably red. Donald Trump won the state in both 2016 and 2020, and his influence—along with interest groups like the Center for Christian Virtue—has only pushed the Ohio GOP further right. Since 2011, Republicans have held the governor’s office, the House, and the Senate, and extreme gerrymandering could soon cement conservative control.
Now, the Ohio Dems have turned to an unlikely candidate to unseat a Republican incumbent. Sam Lawrence is a 19-year-old sophomore at Miami University and is running for the Ohio House of Representatives in District 47. After winning an uncontested primary in August, he will face an opponent three times his age in November’s midterm election.
Fortunately for Lawrence, some of the biggest names in the state’s Democratic politics have already endorsed him, including the Ohio House minority whip Jessica Miranda, progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, and House minority leader Allison Russo. Last year, Lawrence worked as an intern on Russo’s congressional campaign for the 15th District’s special election. “Young does not always equal inexperienced,” Lawrence said in an interview with Miami University’s student newspaper in March. “I know Ohio’s politics. I know Ohio’s big players, and I’ve already started making connections.”
The influence of Democratic leaders is deeply felt at Lawrence’s headquarters. Kelsey Norris, his campaign manager and another student at Miami University, described their operation as “coordinated” with House members. In other races, young people running for office have complained about being viewed as outsiders by the party establishment and received little support. But in Ohio, Lawrence has been welcomed with open arms. “There is a strong connection between the Sam Lawrence campaign and the state Democratic Party,” said Patrick Houlihan, his chief political adviser. “We talk to them a lot.”
Lawrence’s staffers are almost entirely fellow Miami University students. “I was involved in a few student activities with Sam,” said Babs Dwyer, Director of Fundraising, and Chief Political Advisor Patrick Houlihan met Lawrence “through the College Democrats Club”. What united them, according to Norris, was their shared thinking of “politics as a career.” The group decided to launch Lawrence’s primary campaign in February. “I know that I am able to work with Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike,” said Lawrence in his announcement video. “I promise, there is middle ground.”
Lawrence is inspired by politicians like 49-year-old Tim Ryan, calling the congressman and Senate candidate one of his “idols.” Earlier this month, under a selfie with Ryan, Lawrence posted an ActBlue donation link. “Chip in to help me make Tim proud.” Like Ryan, Lawrence said he is focused on “bringing people in, as opposed to pushing them away” by trying to run on “common sense ideals.”
For Ryan, this has meant openly appealing to Trump’s base. In March, the congressman released an advertisement that blamed China for the economic challenges facing Ohio workers. The ad received considerable pushback from his own party and was considered xenophobic by members of the Asian American community. “It is us versus China. And instead of taking them on, Washington is wasting our time with stupid fights,” said Ryan. “Capitalism versus communism. I’m not backing down.”
When asked about the ad, Lawrence said the messaging “could have been softer,” and didn’t believe his campaign would have used the congressman’s exact language. Nevertheless, Lawrence agreed with Ryan’s main point. “We need to be tough on China.”
Lawrence has been much more open to criticizing the left. The Gen Z candidate thinks Democratic leadership should help “bring the progressive wing a little bit closer to the center,” a strategy that seems noticeably out of sync with the thinking of other members of his generation. The 2022 Harvard Youth Poll, which was conducted by the Kennedy School’s Institute for Politics, found that only 41 percent of those under 30 approved of President Biden’s job performance. Similarly to Lawrence, Biden campaigned on his desire to work across the aisle for legislative success. Two years later, the leading reason for young people’s disapproval of the president has been his “ineffectiveness.”
Despite acknowledging this disillusion, Norris and the campaign believe that “we need to work with what we have.” Lawrence’s fiercest talking point is saying the Ohio state House is riddled with corruption, and directly naming his Republican opponent, Sara Carruthers, as part of the problem. “We need to vote corrupt politicians out, starting right here in the Ohio state House of Representatives.” Lawrence pointed to the gun and nursing home lobbies as two corrosive influences on Carruthers’s leadership.
But what is the source of Ohio’s corruption? Lawrence didn’t have an answer. “The specific cause—I can’t tell you.” Asked if moneyed interests played a harmful role in our political system, Dwyer said she was “honestly not sure.” Would Lawrence allow corporate PACs to donate to the campaign, a position that Democrats have increasingly adopted? Dwyer felt that they would still accept those donations, if the company in question shared their “ideals.”
Those ideals include combating climate change—his “number-one issue”—and establishing health care as a “basic right.” Lawrence’s website advocates for a medical system where “Ohioans can keep their private insurance if they choose but everyone will have access to the health care that they need.” The idea is directly inspired by the platform of another young politician, Pete Buttigieg, and his “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan. During the 2020 presidential primary, Lawrence was a canvasser for the millennial mayor, and cites him as a major role model. “I take a lot of my health care policy positions from Pete Buttigieg.”
In Florida, progressive activist Maxwell Frost recently became the first member of Gen Z to win a congressional primary, and will likely secure the seat in November. But not everyone on the Democratic side is sanguine about Lawrence’s prospects. A Democratic Party official in Ohio, speaking off the record, disparaged the concept of teenage candidates, calling them a marketing ploy to generate publicity and produce donations on behalf of the state Democratic Party. As of now, Lawrence has over 60,000 followers on Twitter. One campaign adviser called online advertising a key element of building Lawrence’s brand. Norris said that “coming up with advertisements for fundraising” was one of her primary duties.
The local party official said that these candidates often equate social media exposure with electoral success, saying that Democrats should rethink the strategy of having Gen Z candidates in order to bring in donors. “I have not heard that, ever,” said Lawrence. Instead, his foremost goal is “to win this thing,” but if he loses, he hopes to still be “a beacon of hope for people in my generation.”
Of course, other Ohio Democratic officials continue to publicly applaud Lawrence’s efforts, suggesting that he has a “unique opportunity” to reshape state politics. But if the prevailing ideology of the Lawrence campaign is nearly identical to that of mainstream Ohio Democrats, his age might be the only difference.