TOLEDO, Ohio — Returning to Ohio for the first time in a month, Hillary Clinton tried to make up for lost time Monday with a fiery populist pitch aimed at upending rival Donald Trump in a battleground state where he’s tapped into voters’ economic anxieties.
“He abuses his power, games the system, and puts his own interests ahead of the country’s,” Clinton said during a rally in Toledo, one of two stops she was making in Ohio.
Clinton was away from Ohio nearly all of September. During that time, Trump displayed strength in the state in public opinion polls, helped along by his appeal with Ohio’s white working-class voters. In another blow for Democrats, party groups have cut funding for their Senate candidate, Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor who has struggled in a race that was once expected to be among the most competitive in the nation.
In previous election years, any sign of shakiness in Ohio — long a crown jewel of presidential politics — would have a campaign on edge. But Democrats’ increasing reliance on minority voters to win presidential elections has opened new avenues to the White House for Clinton, and turned Ohio — where about 80 percent of the state’s population is white — into a less essential state.
In a memo to supporters last month, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook outlined several scenarios in which the Democratic nominee can win the election without carrying Ohio. “Hillary has a lot of paths,” he said confidently.
While Clinton aides concede Ohio’s demographics are less favorable than other political battlegrounds, they dispute any suggestion that they’re not treating the state as a top-tier target.
Clinton arrived in Toledo Monday armed with a new endorsement from the state’s biggest star: LeBron James, an Ohio native who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I hope to be elected president, but I know here in Ohio, LeBron will always be the king,” Clinton said.
In her economic appeal to Ohio voters, Clinton condemned big corporate actors who she said protect their own profits at the expense of workers and their communities.
She also seized upon revelations reported by The New York Times that Trump may not have paid income taxes after a more than $900 million loss in 1995, seeking to undercut his appeal to workers. “What kind of genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?” she asked incredulously.
During stops in Toledo and Akron, she accused Trump of indifference to the auto industry when it teetered on the brink of collapse in 2009, reprising an argument that President Barack Obama used effectively against Mitt Romney in 2012. “At the time of the worst financial crisis in Ohio in 2009, he would have let you twist and fall,” she said.
With big cities and sprawling suburbs, booming college towns and Appalachian poverty, Ohio has long been viewed as a bellwether for the nation’s political mood. It also has a storied place in presidential political lore: No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the state.
In 2004, it was Ohio that tipped the election toward Republican George W. Bush in his close race against Democrat John Kerry. In 2012, the state was seen as a litmus test for whether economically frustrated voters were willing to give Obama another four years to bolster the post-recession recovery.
As a result, Obama was a constant presence in Ohio. He held five rallies there in September 2012 and another five in October. He also headlined six events in Ohio in the final four days of campaigning, going on to win the state by three points.
Curt Steiner, an Ohio Republican who worked for the state’s former governor and senator George Voinovich, said that pattern seems unlikely to replicate itself in the final stretch of the 2016 race.
“I don’t think we’re going to see the candidates as often as we have in the past,” said Steiner, though he believes the race between Clinton and Trump remains competitive in Ohio.
A flood of Clinton surrogates has spent time in Ohio during the candidate’s September absence. Former President Bill Clinton will roll through on a two-day bus tour this week and Obama will headline the state’s Democratic Party dinner later this month.
Clinton’s campaign has spent more than $17 million on television and radio advertising in Ohio during the general election — nearly 6 times more than Trump, according to data from Kantar Media’s political ad tracker. The Democrat also has about 400 paid staffers working in the state and 61 campaign offices, with a few more opening this week, according to her campaign.
“No one wins Ohio without hard work and we invested in Ohio early — and continue to do so,” said Chris Wyant, Clinton’s Ohio state director.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.