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Mike DeWine’s dance with the Trump factor in his Ohio gubernatorial bid: Robert Alexander (Opinion)

July 14, 2018

Mike DeWine’s dance with the Trump factor in his Ohio gubernatorial bid: Robert Alexander (Opinion)

ADA, Ohio -- With the dust settling in the wake of the contentious Ohio primary season, it is worth examining what the next few months might look like in the race for the state’s next governor. In a rematch of the 2010 attorney general race, Democrat Richard Cordray is taking on outgoing Republican attorney general Mike DeWine. While the combatants are the same, the political landscape has changed dramatically over the past eight years.

In 2010, the GOP was riding high campaigning against Obamacare in the midst of President Barack Obama’s first midterm elections. Presidents almost always lose seats in midterms, but 2010 was one of the worst showings for a president’s party in American history. Republicans gained 63 seats in the U.S. House, six seats in the Senate and nearly 700 state legislative seats across the country. It was a drubbing of epic proportions.

Yet, statewide races in Ohio were closely contested. John Kasich upended incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Strickland by fewer than 80,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast. The race for attorney general was even closer, with DeWine edging the incumbent Cordray by fewer than 50,000 votes.

While DeWine has continued in his position as the state’s attorney general, Cordray was tapped by then-President Obama to head the newly formed federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Although both Cordray and DeWine have won statewide office, DeWine’s name has been a fixture in Ohio politics for nearly 40 years, serving as a state senator, U.S. congressman, lieutenant governor and U.S. senator in addition to his current position.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2010 and 2018 is the emergence of Donald Trump as the leader of the Republican Party. His outsider status and populist rhetoric set him apart from GOP counterparts in securing the party’s nomination in 2016. His combative style and penchant for bombast has led some within the party to distance themselves from him. Gov. Kasich has been chief among his critics.  

DeWine has largely danced around President Trump over the past two years. Although he endorsed the president in 2016, he has stopped short of fully embracing him on a number of occasions — including not finding the time to visit with him on Trump’s trip to Ohio just before the state’s May primary. This stands in contrast to Senate hopeful Jim Renacci, who has fully supported Trump.

In 2012, DeWine contended that “to be elected president, you have to do more than tear down your opponents. You have to give the American people a reason to vote for you, a reason to hope, a reason to believe that under your leadership, America will be better.” This stands in contrast to the caustic rhetoric President Trump has doled out for Democrats and Republicans alike.

His standing as a career politician further puts DeWine at odds with the president and his most fervent supporters. In an environment where political experience is often seen as a liability, DeWine has an impossible task of casting himself as an outsider. Trumpian calls to “drain the swamp” are difficult to square with someone who has held public office for four decades.

Trump fared well in Ohio in 2016, garnering 52 percent of the vote compared to the 46 percent he obtained nationwide. This was the highest Republican vote share in Ohio since George H. W. Bush’s victory in 1988. Yet, 100,000 more Ohioans turned out to vote for Obama in 2012 and nearly 200,000 more did so in 2008, indicating Trump’s success in Ohio may not be as strong as the 2016 election might suggest.  

President Trump will likely weigh in on the contest throughout the fall. Whether DeWine will cozy up to the president remains to be seen. DeWine has largely avoided political drama over the course of his career, while Trump appears to thrive on political theater. DeWine’s decision to tango or to tap dance with Trump will largely determine his success in his pursuit of the governorship.

Robert Alexander chairs the department of history, political science, and geography at Ohio Northern University.

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