WASHINGTON — On paper, the crop of Democrats who challenged Ohio’s 11 GOP congressional incumbents this year were the most competitive candidates the party had fielded in generations.

They raised more than $19 million for their campaigns to Republicans’ $18 million — a huge leap from 2016, when Democratic challengers raised $690,832 to GOP incumbents’ $20 million.

They had strong grass-roots efforts and aggressive campaign schedules.

And they had strong resumes — the field included the Franklin County recorder, the Hamilton County clerk of courts and two former international aid workers.

But on Election Day, not one of those Democrats won, leading some to wonder: Is this another sign that the state is trending Republican? Or is it a sign that the state’s 16 congressional districts are drawn irrevocably to be safe for incumbents — gerrymandered better, in fact, than many of the states that saw Republican incumbents fall to Democratic challengers?

“These were not placeholders,” said Catherine Turcer, an expert on redistricting reform who is executive director of Common Cause Ohio, of the Ohio Democrats who sought U.S. House seats this year.

Turcer and others blame the way the districts were drawn in 2011. While 52 percent of Ohio voters voted for Republicans in November, 75 percent — 12 of 16 congressional seats — are held by Republicans.

The state’s one open U.S. House seat also remained in Republican hands: Former Ohio State and NFL wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez won an open seat over Susan Moran Palmer. The slot had been occupied by Rep. Jim Renacci, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate.

Even those in the least gerrymandered districts couldn’t get an edge. Theresa Gasper, a Beavercreek Democrat who challenged Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, noted that President Donald Trump won the district by about 7 points in 2016 and the district is known as an R-plus-4 — meaning a Republican candidate only has a 4-point advantage in the district.

She said she has spent the past month deconstructing her race.

“You just come to a screeching halt,” she said. “During the campaign, there’s plenty to do, so it’s weird to go from all that to almost nothing.”

In the weeks since her defeat, she and other candidates have discussed whether they’ll run in 2020 — before redistricting reform approved in May 2018 takes effect in 2022.

“Our biggest concern, quite honestly, is that the districts are gerrymandered until 2022, so is running prior (to that) an exercise in futility?” she said. “The question becomes: Do we surrender 2020 and focus on ’22, even though that means losing the momentum we’ve gained?”

Turcer, meanwhile, said this year's elections made it clear "that those districts are strong barriers to the other party." She said she believes the current districts will be a deterrent to quality candidates until 2022.

"These districts are so rigged, it's an obstacle even to candidates that really are on the ball and have good resumes and have fundraising capabilities," she said. "That's why it's hard to give up gerrymandering. It's such a powerful tool to insulate a party from the opposition that it's incredibly hard not to lose."

Democrat Rick Neal, who challenged Rep. Steve Stivers in central Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, already has begun to explore what’s next. He was one of 54 to apply for two vacancies on Columbus City Council.

He said he’s heartened that Democrats beat their performance in 2016 — “we definitely moved the needle in a really big way.”

Although he acknowledges that district lines put him at a disadvantage, he also said Trump’s strong support in the state created political advantages for Republicans that are difficult for Democrats to overcome.

He points to Democrat Ken Harbaugh, who challenged Bob Gibbs in the 7th Congressional District, which stretches north from Knox County. Harbaugh, he said, “worked for two years. He went everywhere. He talked to everyone.”

But Trump, who won that district by nearly 30 points in 2016, still has a hold on that community, Neal said.

Danny O’Connor, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Republican Troy Balderson in central Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, said that, while the districts were drawn to be “wave-proof,” Democrats came close to moving the needle.

He argues that Democratic wins in states such as Pennsylvania, whose courts threw out their congressional maps, reflect the fact that Ohio is perhaps more gerrymandered than most states.

Regardless, he said, “I think Ohioans are going to be ready in a couple of years for change.” The same things that concerned them during the campaign — health care accessibility, college affordability — continue to worry them.

Democrats, he said, just have to make sure they’re still talking about those issues in two years. “We’ve got to show up,” he said. “We can’t retreat.”

Rep. Steve Stivers, who led the National Republican Campaign Committee, said he thinks GOP congressmen won because "we have good incumbents who are serving their constituents well." He said many of the seats Republicans lost nationwide were open seats. Ohio, by contrast, had only one open seat. Balderson won a special election in August, so technically he ran as an incumbent in November.

But Dale Butland, a Democratic strategist from Ohio, said the fact that the state saw so many strong Democratic candidates who still lost “to me reflects the fact that Ohio has become a Republican state.”

He concedes that gerrymandering played a role, but he said the boundaries don’t explain why most Democrats running statewide lost. The state has traditionally been known as a swing state, he said, but that label may no longer apply.

“To be honest with you, I think a lot of folks in Washington will think twice before putting a lot of money into this state next time around,” he said.

Former Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges said that regardless of whether the state is swinging Republican, “we don’t have any competitive congressional districts, and we haven’t had any for several cycles.”

In 2014 and 2016, he said, neither the National Republican Congressional Committee nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent “a single dime” on a congressional race in Ohio. That changed in 2018, when Balderson and O’Connor fought a bitterly close special election contest.

Is the state more Republican? Borges argues it is. The GOP has swept every statewide executive office except one since 1994.

“The question is: Is it 12-4 red?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

jwehrman@dispatch.com

@jessicawehrman