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Examining key Valley races

Many of the races in the Mahoning Valley went under the radar this past election because the presidency, as it does every four years, took center stage.

But there are two races — one each in Mahoning and Trumbull counties — that I want to dive into deeper.

The Mahoning County race involved Probate Court Judge Robert N. Rusu Jr., an independent, narrowly defeating Republican David Lee Engler.

The Trumbull County race had Commissioner Dan Polivka, who’s also the county Democratic Party chairman, lose to Republican Niki Frenchko.

Though judicial races don’t include party labels and the race was on the back page of the ballot, Engler’s affiliation with Republicans made this an extremely close race.

Rusu was appointed July 8, 2014, by then-Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, to the open probate court judicial seat with the support of the county Republican Party and was elected to a full six-year term that November.

When no one filed by the partisan political party deadline for the seat, Rusu was expected to run unopposed as an independent. But Engler turned in a write-in form Jan. 6 for the Republican nomination.

Until this election, Engler had voted only one time in a Republican primary, in 2016.

He was a longtime Democrat who served as Mahoning County commissioner, a member of the county educational service center board and as a Youngstown councilman. He lost the 2014 Democratic primary for a seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals and when he filed for probate judge, he was just two months removed from finishing third in the nonpartisan Austintown trustee race among four candidates.

Yet, when the unofficial results came in for the probate court race, Rusu, who greatly outspent Engler, won by only 52 to 48 percent. It was the closest race in Mahoning County.

Thomas McCabe, county Republican Party chairman, said Engler’s name ID compared to Rusu’s was a significant help as was Engler being on the party’s campaign literature.

“We spent tens of thousands of dollars on slate cards with his name on it and in The Vindicator with full-page ads and on digital media,” McCabe said. “The results didn’t shock me. People thought it could be the upset of the night.”

The race had the smallest number of votes of any with at least two candidates running countywide.

Also, having President Donald Trump winning Mahoning County by 1.93 percent — the first Republican presidential candidate to capture the former Democratic stronghold since 1972 — was a benefit.

“Ticket splitting is now as out of style as watching television programs at the time they air,” said Mark Weaver, Rusu’s media consultant and a prominent statewide political strategist. “David Engler has been around Mahoning County politics for some time and built name ID. We took his candidacy seriously. Being on the Republican sample ballot gave him a boost.”

In the Frenchko-Polivka race, there were a lot of variables that resulted in her becoming the first Republican to win a commissioner race in Trumbull County in close to 40 years.

The dynamics are compelling.

Polivka served as county commissioner for 16 years and on Warren City Council for 21 years before that, while Frenchko had run twice before for elected office — years ago — and lost.

Frenchko had ongoing issues with county Republican Party leadership with Chairman Kevin Wyndham telling me less than a month before the election: “She picks fights with everybody I know, literally everybody. I stay clear of her.”

So how did Frenchko knock off Polivka, beating him by 4.6 percent when the Republican establishment wasn’t with her?

One, Polivka overstayed his welcome. Under his watch, the domination of Democrats in Trumbull County has disappeared. He still hasn’t gotten the message and insists on remaining party chairman.

Commissioner Frank Fuda, a fellow Democrat, actively campaigned for Frenchko as he has had longtime problems with Polivka. Fuda is from Niles and remains a well-liked politician there.

Frenchko won the Democratic city by 4.8 percent. She also successfully kept Polivka from running up the score in Girard, also a Democratic city, losing by 12.8 percent.

Despite Frenchko saying she “didn’t ride Trump’s coat tails” and “this was not about red vs. blue,” she greatly benefited from the president’s dominant performance in this election. Trump won Trumbull County by 10.4 percent, and there were plenty of people who voted a straight party ticket.

Frenchko worked hard for this victory. She defied the odds to pull off the biggest upset in a countywide race in Trumbull in several years and make history.

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