Ohio's GOP Gubernatorial Candidates To Fight Over Trump Voters?

Jun 18, 2017

If you are a Republican who wants to be elected the next governor of Ohio in 2018, you may be scratching your head over what to do about the man sitting in the White House, President Trump.

Do you run and cling to his side through next Spring's primary election, hoping that enough of those 2,841,005 Ohioans who voted for Trump for president last November will fall into your lap?

Or do you keep your distance, on the possibility that Trump's approval ratings – already not so good – will continue to tank and that more chaos and misfortune will strike the Trump White House, to the point that he will become toxic for Republicans running for governor and congressional offices?

It's a dice roll for the four Republicans who will apparently make up the field of GOP gubernatorial candidates – Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth.

Trump, after all, did win Ohio rather convincingly by 446,841 votes out of about 5.6 million cast – all the more impressive in that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had won the state in the previous two presidential elections.

And, after the election dust was settled and Trump was preparing to take over the White House, he and his troops in Ohio organized a coup d'etat to toss Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges out and replace him with Jane Timken of Canton, a fervent and deep-pocketed Trump supporter.

Borges, of course, was the ally of Trump's nemesis during the primaries and the general election, Gov. John Kasich, who, after losing the nomination to Trump, absolutely refused to endorse his candidacy. Some serious bad blood between those two.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, which covers national politics and is published weekly by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, thinks there is good reason for the GOP candidates to make nice with Trump and his Ohio supporters.

"I think you would have to be pretty supportive of Donald Trump if you are going to win a Republican primary in Ohio,'' Kondik said.

None of the candidates, Kondik said "are particularly Trumpish," but he said he doesn't think winning the primary by running away from Trump and toward the middle ground is a good strategy.

Renacci, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 2012, might have the best shot at the Trump vote, Kondik said.

"He's the one guy in the field who, as a member of Congress, actually votes on the stuff that the president wants,'' Kondik said.

And Renacci – probably the least well-known of the GOP contenders – has been playing the Trump card since the day he entered the race.

Earlier this month, Renacci picked up the endorsements of two grassroots Trump groups at a motorcycle rally in Sandusky – Citizens for Trump, which helped turnout the vote in Ohio for Trump; and Bikers for Trump.

"Jim Renacci is not only a fellow rider, but he's also a fellow patriot, a career businessman, and the only Columbus outsider in the race,'' said Tiki Ferrell, who heads the Ohio chapter of Bikers for Trump."

Renacci, of course, did some crowing about the endorsements.

"My opponents may have the establishment in their pocket, but with Ohioans like these on my flank, I'm confident this is a fight we can and will win,'' Renacci said.

Ann Becker, a state central committeewoman from Butler County and head of the Cincinnait Tea Party told WVXU she is "leaning" toward supporting Renacci.

"If we are going to turn Ohio around, we need new ideas,'' said Becker, who organized grassroots efforts for Trump last fall. "A candidate who has spent most of his life running businesses like Jim Renacci and not in government, as the other three candidates have, is as appealing to me here in Ohio as it was for the presidency."  

Other candidates have also been nodding to the Trump crowd.

Taylor made herself highly visible in the crowd at Cincinnati's Rivertowne Marina on June 7, when Trump came to the banks of the Ohio River to tout his plan to rebuild the locks, dams and levees on the nation's inland waterways.

And, in January, she shocked the Kasich crowd, by switching her support for Ohio party chair from Borges to the Trump candidate, Timken. Nonetheless, Kasich said in February that he would back her for governor, although he hasn't been heard from much on the subject since then.

And Husted seems to have been going out of his way to praise Trump's performance as president lately, even though their personal styles are entirely different from each other.

Lee Czerwonka, the Blue Ash mayor who has agreed to head Husted's campaign efforts in Hamilton County, said Husted and Trump do have one thing in common.

"They are both always looking for efficiencies in government, better ways to do things,'' Czerwonka said.

But the differences end there.

"The differences between them are in style,'' Czerwonka said. "Husted is a very polished politician. Trump is more bombastic. But I could see Husted appealing to a lot of Trump voters just based on the issues."

In May, when Husted announced his candidacy, his campaign released a video short mostly in the small northwest Ohio town of Montpelier, where he was raised by his adoptive parents.

There were some distinct echoes of Trump rhetoric in what he had to say.

"Barack Obama said folks here cling to our religion and guns,'' Husted said, standing in Montpelier's downtown. "And there's no doubt my family would firmly fit in Hillary Clinton's 'basket of deplorables.' And we're proud of it."

Husted has kept one foot firmly in the Republican establishment camp while he dips his toes in the waters of Trumpdom.

His campaign says he has 35 county party chairs and vice chairs who have endorsed him, including party chair Todd Hall of Butler County.

Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou emailed WVXU from an airliner Thursday as he returned from a vacation. He had a simple and straightforward message: "I have not endorsed and I don't have any intention to."

That leaves Mike DeWine, the best known of the lot, having served in public office for decades as a U.S. House member, lieutenant governor and two terms in the U.S. Senate.

DeWine has pretty much steered clear of talking about Trump so far. The Ohio attorney general has not formally announced his candidacy, but, rest assured, he is running; and probably starts out as the front-runner.

Instead of talking about Trump, DeWine has been trying to keep his name out front with high-profile moves like his recent lawsuit against five companies which make prescription drugs, saying that they have been tricking doctors into prescribing opiods, which have been responsible for an epidemic that has killed thousands of Ohioans. Ohio, in fact, leads the nation in opiate overdose deaths.

He's free to pretty much ignore the debate over Trump for now, but that is likely to change once he formally declares his candidacy and the focus of the state's media shifts to the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said the Trump factor can't be ignored by the GOP candidates.

"Certainly, the fact that Trump was able to wrest control of the party apparatus away from Kasich suggests Ohio is a state where Trump could be a factor,'' Mariani said.

"But Kasich did win the primary here in Ohio last year; and that is proof that his base could mobilize,''

Maybe, Mariani said, one candidate can make the play for the establishment, more moderate Republicans and let the other three divide up the Trump vote.

One way or another, though, Donald Trump is going to be a player in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary.