CLEVELAND — In the early days of Covid-19, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine earned bipartisan praise for listening to medical experts and following the science, not then-President Donald Trump.
The Republican had been among the first governors in the country to close schools and businesses. His daily televised press briefings turned into appointment viewing. His top health adviser became so popular that she would be strongly urged to run for Senate — as a Democrat.
DeWine's poll numbers were robust. A second term, if he wanted one, seemed secure.
But politics caught up to the pandemic. Those on the right grew angry and restless with DeWine’s mandates. Those on the left accused him of caving each time he rolled back a restriction. Meanwhile, a federal investigation focused on an Ohio-based electric utility has also hit close to the governor’s administration, though DeWine himself has not been accused of wrongdoing. And now all of this turbulence hangs over this year’s election for governor.
DeWine, 75, faces three opponents in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Trump, who at one point expressed casual interest in seeing DeWine challenged, has not indicated a preference. Democrats John Cranley and Nan Whaley — old friends and former big-city mayors — are engaged in an increasingly bitter fight for their party’s nomination, which in a state dominated by Republicans comes with an underdog tag.
"I go back to something that [former Ohio Gov.] George Voinovich told me," DeWine, who according to polls is a heavy favorite to be renominated, said in an interview Friday with NBC News. "'The best politics for us is to do a good job in office.' I try to keep that in mind. I don't take anything for granted. I don't assume that this is a Republican state. This is still a competitive state, and so we're going to run very hard and work very hard."
An old-fashioned conservative and staple of Ohio politics for more than 40 years, DeWine served in both chambers of Congress and as a lieutenant governor and state attorney general before winning the governorship in 2018. In recent months he’s worked to square his re-election message with the right, sending state Highway Patrol troopers to the U.S.-Mexico border and railing against President Joe Biden and inflation in campaign ads. He also is heralding Intel’s plans to build a $20 billion semiconductor plant in the Columbus suburbs, to be aided by a substantial package of state incentives, as a sign that Ohio is business-friendly.
The most recent public poll of the GOP primary, an April survey by the Trafalgar Group, suggests that the anti-DeWine candidates will split the vote, benefiting the incumbent. About 40 percent of likely primary voters said they planned to vote for DeWine, followed by 26 percent for former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and 24 percent for farmer and restaurateur Joe Blystone. A fourth candidate, former state Rep. Ron Hood, polled in the low single digits.
Renacci, who is independently wealthy and largely self-funding his campaign, has been angling for a Trump endorsement. He hired Brad Parscale, one of the former president’s past campaign managers, as a top adviser. But Blystone, a political novice recognizable by his trademark cowboy hat and long beard, earned a word-of-mouth following after winning over grassroots activists.
In an interview, Renacci, 63, said he was optimistic the votes would break his way, but at points he sounded prepared for a loss while branding DeWine as a weak general election candidate.
“If DeWine wins, it will be because of a split vote,” Renacci said. “If you think about it, an incumbent governor in a state like Ohio will probably get no more than 42 percent of the vote. That means 60 percent of his party does not believe he’s the right person to move forward.”
Renacci, who briefly ran for governor in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful Senate bid, cast DeWine as a tax-and-spend Republican whose pandemic mandates slowed Ohio’s economic growth. He also cited the scandal involving FirstEnergy — a large electric company that has admitted to bribing public officials, including a man DeWine later appointed to be the state's top utilities regulator, in exchange for favorable nuclear legislation — as a motivation for running.
A former speaker of the Ohio House and a former chair of the state Republican Party are among those who have been charged in the federal probe. Both maintain their innocence. The regulator, who has since resigned, has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing. DeWine on Friday defended his support for nuclear energy and said he was unaware of any "enrichment" the regulator had received prior to his appointment.
Regardless, Renacci said, the "scandal will be a noose around Gov. DeWine’s neck. There’s too many people around him who have resigned, stepped away, been raided by the FBI."
Cranley, the former mayor of Cincinnati, and Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, both believe that the FirstEnergy case, which goes to the heart of household electric bills, could turn a Republican-leaning state in their favor.
“Mike DeWine is uniquely vulnerable because he oversaw the biggest scandal in the history of the state,” Cranley said.
Whaley, 46, remarked on how DeWine “has been in office since I was 10 months old.”
“The system worked for him and his family, so he doesn’t want to change anything,” she added. “And it’s not working for everybody else’s family.”
The Democrats entered the race as close friends, both of them outgoing mayors of large southwest Ohio cities. Cranley, 48, has pitched legal marijuana as a centerpiece of his campaign. Whaley has homed in on women’s health issues and DeWine’s inability to pass gun safety measures after vowing to do so after a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton.
But in recent weeks the Democratic race has turned nasty. At their first debate, Whaley, who would be the first woman to be elected as Ohio’s governor, called attention to how Cranley had opposed abortion rights before flip-flopping on the issue. At their second debate, she dismissed Cranley as a “moderate white man.” (He’s a past winner of a Cincinnati alternative newspaper’s “Best Conservative” award.) In between the debates, Cranley launched an ad that took credit for a “Cincinnati comeback,” using economic statistics that painted a bleaker picture of Dayton.
“Under John Cranley, Cincinnati has made a real comeback,” a narrator says in the ad, “while under Nan Whaley, Dayton has continued to decline even more than Mike DeWine’s Ohio.”
Whaley remained furious over the ad two weeks later.
“I think what he did to attack a city like Dayton is pretty callous,” she said. “I love my community, and I wouldn’t attack Cincinnati. I love Cincinnati, too, you know?”
Cranley said he believes Whaley was “a good mayor” who “managed Dayton compassionately.”
“But if we’re going to beat the Republicans in Ohio,” he added, “I think that we need a candidate with a track record that’s better than the status quo, not worse.”
There has been no independent polling of the Democratic primary since the candidates began spending big money on advertising. A late February poll from The Hill and Emerson College showed Cranley and Whaley tied at 16 percent among likely voters, with 69 percent undecided. Another poll — a monthlong survey of eligible voters from February to March by the University of Akron — had Whaley at about 23 percent, Cranley at 18 percent, and 54 percent undecided.
While Cranley has secured support from Cleveland’s major news organization and several influential faith leaders, Whaley has locked up higher-profile institutional support among Ohio Democrats, including the mayors of Akron, Columbus, Toledo and Youngstown. She also has the support of the only Democrat who has had enduring success in the state over the last 30 years.
“Nan led her city through crisis after crisis, bringing people together, never dividing them,” Sen. Sherrod Brown says in a straight-to-camera ad for Whaley’s campaign. “Join me and vote Nan Whaley. She’ll be a governor who works for everyone.”