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Former Dayton Mayor Whaley wins Democratic Ohio gubernatorial primary

Whaley beat John Cranley, another ex-mayor from southwest Ohio. She'll go up against Gov. Mike DeWine in the November election.
Nan Whaley
Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, responds to a question in the Ohio gubernatorial Democratic primary debate in Wilberforce on March 29.Meg Vogel / The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool file

Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley won the Ohio Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday, defeating John Cranley, the former mayor of Cincinnati, NBC News projects.

Whaley led Cranley by 65 percent to 35 percent, with 96 percent of precincts reporting. Cranley conceded the race Tuesday night and called for Ohio Democrats to unite behind Whaley.

“I spoke with Nan to congratulate her on her smashing victory. She has great momentum going into Nov.,” he tweeted. “Time to unify.”

Whaley — whom Cranley had outspent on ads during the race, $1.8 million to $1.54 million, as of Monday — will face Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who fended off a primary challenge Tuesday from a trio of candidates running to his right. Whaley's second term as the mayor of Dayton, the sixth-largest city in Ohio, ended in January. She would be the first woman to be elected as Ohio’s governor if she wins the general election.

Her battle against DeWine, however, is likely to be uphill. DeWine, despite the primary challenges, has held strong approval ratings, and the state leans Republican (former President Donald Trump won it twice by 8 percentage points). The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has deemed the state’s general election a “likely Republican” win.

“Ohio isn’t a red state or a blue state. It’s a frustrated state that has been ignored by members of both political parties,” Whaley said in an election night speech in Dayton.

While Whaley, 46, and Cranley, 48, were thought to have similar policy ideas — both focused on public corruption, the problematic availability of firearms in the state and the need to replace DeWine — Whaley more heavily emphasized women’s health issues and gun control. Cranley, on the other hand, had pitched legalizing recreational marijuana as a centerpiece of his campaign. Whaley also supports legalizing marijuana in Ohio.

Whaley frequently criticized DeWine’s inability to pass gun safety measures even though he vowed to do so after a 2019 mass shooting in Dayton.

In an interview last month, Whaley also drew attention to DeWine's long career in politics, noting that DeWine, 75, 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 said. “And it’s not working for everybody else’s family.”

Whaley has frequently attacked DeWine over a scandal involving FirstEnergy, a large Ohio-based electric utility 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. The company is under federal investigation; DeWine has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Whaley reprised the attacks Tuesday night, repeatedly blasting DeWine as “out of touch,” “corrupt” and someone who “doesn’t care about you.” She mocked him for being "so rich his mansion has its own Wikipedia page."

Whaley and Cranley — both outgoing mayors of large southwest Ohio cities — entered the race as close friends, but the contest eventually turned nasty.

At their first debate last month, Whaley called attention to how Cranley had opposed abortion rights before he flipped on the issue. At their second debate, she dismissed Cranley as a “moderate white man.”

In between the debates, Cranley ran an ad that took credit for a “Cincinnati comeback” while painting a bleak picture of Dayton's fortunes under Whaley.

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 last month. “I love my community, and I wouldn’t attack Cincinnati. I love Cincinnati, too, you know?”

When it came to endorsements, Whaley, who ran unsuccessfully for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018 (she dropped out and endorsed eventual nominee Richard Cordray), locked up high-profile support from Ohio Democrats, including the mayors of Akron, Columbus, Toledo and Youngstown.

Perhaps most critically, she also earned the endorsement of Sen. Sherrod Brown — the only Democrat in an increasingly red battleground state who has had enduring success over the last three decades.

“Nan led her city through crisis after crisis, bringing people together, never dividing them,” Brown says in straight-to-camera ad for Whaley’s campaign. “Join me and vote Nan Whaley. She’ll be a governor who works for everyone.”

CORRECTION: (May 4, 2022, 4:17 p.m. ET) A previous version of this article misstated the primary ad spending for former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Whaley’s campaign spent $1.54 million, not $155,000.