Opinion | Can This Ex-Republican Revive Democrats in Rural Ohio?

Chris Gibbs, a farmer who raises soybeans, corn and cattle, spent much of his adult life as a leader of the Republican Party in Shelby County, Ohio. He rose from vice chair of the local executive committee to party chairman, a role he served in for seven years, until 2015. Last fall he was elected to a far tougher job: chairman of the Democratic Party in Shelby County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats more than eight to one.

The story of his political conversion offers a glimmer of hope to Democrats in otherwise inhospitable terrain and a possible path forward in places where the party has withered. His pitch? At a time when Republicans must fall in line behind Donald Trump, Democrats have the chance to rebrand themselves as the party of freedom, a concept valued by rural people everywhere.

In today’s Republican Party, “You either speak with a Trump voice or you’re vaporized,” Mr. Gibbs told me. We chatted on a recent evening in his garage in Maplewood, after we searched his pasture for newborn calves. (We found three.) “In the Democratic Party, everybody gets a voice. You don’t always get your way, but you get a voice.”

Mr. Gibbs, 65, long identified as a moderate Republican, of the sort Ohio used to be known for, in the era of Gov. John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman. He started to feel out of step with the party in 2014 as it turned against immigration. Nevertheless, in 2016 Mr. Gibbs voted for Mr. Trump, hoping for the best.

He quickly grew disillusioned by Mr. Trump’s lack of statesmanship. Then came the tariff war with China, which ate into the value of Mr. Gibbs’s soybean crop in 2018. He wrote a scathing opinion essay in a local paper that compared the American farmer to Stormy Daniels. Both had gotten “screwed” by Mr. Trump, he wrote, and been offered cash to keep their mouths shut.

The response was swift: He lost most of his friends and his post on the board of elections and joined the ranks of Shelby County’s undeclared. (There are 21,508 registered voters in Shelby County who don’t identify as Republicans or Democrats, compared with 10,061 registered as Republicans and 1,243 as Democrats.) In 2020 he briefly tried a run for Congress.

Running as an independent forced him to think more deeply about what he stood for, because he had to explain it to people for the first time in his life. Soon afterward, he met a politician who articulated the same values: Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who ran for Senate in 2022 on a platform that emphasized freedom, faith and family. Mr. Gibbs stumped for Mr. Ryan in a cowboy hat and a bolo tie. Mr. Ryan lost to J.D. Vance, but that campaign opened the door to Mr. Gibbs considering himself a Democrat.

Last year Tom Kerrigan, who had led the Shelby County Democrats for a decade, retired and recruited Mr. Gibbs as his replacement. “He had energy,” Mr. Kerrigan told me, as well as a track record of challenging MAGA Republicans.

Bethanne Spires, the party secretary, said that some Shelby County Democrats still find it confusing to be led by a former adversary. “Some people perhaps don’t trust him,” she said. “But I know very well that his whole heart is in our mission.”

Mr. Gibbs has the zeal of a convert, and he is trying to draw Democrats out of the shadows in a place where many fear identifying their partisan affiliation publicly. “This is a scary place to be a Democrat,” Jan Selby, 74, a retired medical technologist from Auglaize County, told me. She didn’t feel comfortable putting up a political sign in her pasture, for fear that someone would shoot her horses.

Mr. Gibbs started a “citizen of the month” feature on Facebook, highlighting Democrats well known in their communities — a beloved veteran, a retired teacher, a helpful hardware store employee — to show that they “don’t have horns or a tail,” he said. He booked a booth for Democrats at the Ohio State Fair in July, next to the livestock pens and the 4-H Club.

Now he’s making plans to host a platform convention, where Shelby County Democrats will define their shared values and discuss how to talk about them with neighbors, relatives and friends. “This has been the problem with Democrats,” he told me. “They blow in like a big bird and say, ‘We’re going to do this for you.’” They talk too much about policies, he said, and not enough about values.

Mr. Gibbs is not the only person trying to revive the Democratic Party in rural areas by reframing it on freedom. A group called Rural Organizing distributed 15,000 yard signs in Ohio, Montana and Michigan that read, “We support choice, freedom, democracy.” Democrats 101, a volunteer effort started by the author J.M. Purvis, promotes a universal Democratic creed based on freedom, justice and opportunity. He wants the party to focus on building a foundation for the future. “The entire apparatus is defined by the quest to win the next election,” Mr. Purvis told me. “If Shelby County is going to vote red in the next election, why spend any money there? You don’t. But that’s short-range thinking. There are a lot of dynamic people at the county level in the Democratic Party. And they feel abandoned.”

Mr. Purvis’s goal is to unify Democrats — and maybe all Americans — behind a common political identity. Mr. Gibbs has a different idea. He doesn’t think the Democrats of Shelby County have the same values as those in San Francisco or Detroit, and that’s the beauty of what makes Democrats different in the age of Trump: They’re free to define themselves.

This ambitious reinvention of the party was on display at this year’s spring dinner for Democrats at the Sidney Elks Lodge. I counted about 130 attendees, many of them ex-Republicans. The dinner began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. Mr. Ryan gave the keynote speech, reframing core Democratic positions as issues of freedom. Abortion rights? That’s freedom from “the ultimate government encroachment.” Labor rights? Freedom of association. Regulation of Big Tech? That’s “freedom for our kids’ minds.”

“Freedom is a foundational value for us as citizens and as Democrats,” he told the audience.

Craig Swartz, the head of the recently formed Rural Caucus of Ohio’s Democratic Party, gave a fiery speech about what it would take to bring the Democratic Party back to life in rural America. Afterward, he told me that Democrats need to win at least 40 percent of the rural vote in Ohio to prevail in statewide elections — an impossible task in places where Democrats have all but disappeared.

I saw the challenges firsthand in downtown Sidney, the county seat. Some are familiar to Democrats across the country; Fox News played endlessly at the Spot, a popular restaurant, portraying Democrats as socialists and “pro-Hamas” terrorists.

The more difficult challenge for Mr. Gibbs and the Shelby County Democrats may be generational. The spring dinner was full of gray-haired retirees. The younger voters I met were either enamored by Mr. Trump or politically disengaged. Raymond Daniel, 25, who cuts hair at the Downtown Barbershop, told me he couldn’t think of a politician who had ever inspired him. He was, however, happy to cast the first ballot of his life for a 28-year-old farmer who recently won his primary for a seat on the Shelby County commission by more than nine votes over two older, more established candidates. Mr. Daniel cared more that the candidate was young than that he was a Republican.

Mr. Gibbs didn’t deny that energizing young people is one of the many challenges that he is facing. But if they get a chance to hear what Shelby County Democrats truly stand for, he argues, they’ll give the party a second look. That will be the ultimate test of whether his belief in the power of traditional American values — and the idea of freedom — are enough.

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