COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Donald Trump will seek to unite a fractious state Republican Party in Ohio on Friday in an address to GOP loyalists that was being skipped by Gov. John Kasich, one of the president’s 2016 primary opponents and sharpest critics.
Trump’s appearance at an annual fundraising dinner sought to project an image of common purpose in the nation’s premier battleground state despite deep internal divisions. Ohio holds a number of high-stakes races for governor, Senate and several U.S. House seats that could factor into GOP control of Congress this fall — and importantly for Trump, linger into the next presidential campaign.
Kasich said in a recent interview that “people are getting sick and tired” of the partisan warfare coming out of the Trump White House and dismissed the president’s overwhelming popularity within the GOP as a byproduct of a shrinking party.
A Kasich spokesman said the term-limited governor had a personal scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend the dinner. Kasich has not been present at any of Trump’s previous appearances in the state, starting with the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Bob Paduchik, Trump’s hand-picked Republican National Committee co-chairman, called Kasich “childish” and “insanely jealous” in an op-ed this month. In an interview before Friday’s dinner, Paduchik repeatedly dismissed any suggestion that Ohio’s GOP is divided.
Trump was trying to bolster GOP support for Mike DeWine, the state’s former U.S. senator and current attorney general, who is aiming to succeed Kasich. Trump has also invested heavily in the Senate campaign of Rep. Jim Renacci, an Ohio congressman attempting to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Betty Sutton, a former member of Congress and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said in a call with reporters earlier Friday that Trump’s visit to Ohio was an affront to both Democrats and Kasich.
Sutton, running mate to Democrat Richard Cordray, suggested DeWine’s attendance at the dinner meant he was choosing sides in favor of Trump’s “radical agenda” on health care over Kasich’s support of Medicaid expansion allowed under the federal health care law.
“They are all signaling that this is Trump’s Republican party,” Sutton said.
Trump flew to Ohio with his wife, Melania, and the couple headed straight for a tour of the neonatal intensive care unit at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where babies born drug-dependent receive specialized treatment.
He was greeted at the Columbus airport by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who joined the president at the hospital and was also attending the dinner.
Both the president and first lady have said they are focused on the epidemic of opioid addiction that is killing tens of thousands of people a year.
After touring the medical unit, Trump sat with a group of older children as they colored pictures of American flags and hearts with red, white and blue. He told them they were doing a “great job.”
Trump last visited Ohio on Aug. 4 to rally for U.S. House candidate Troy Balderson, a GOP state senator. Balderson was certified Friday as the winner of a special election to fill the unexpired term of longtime Republican congressman Pat Tiberi, who retired in January.
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, Steve Peoples in New York and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.