COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican lawmakers seemingly cracked open the door for a primary challenge to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last week when they overrode his veto of a bill curbing the governor’s powers to control the pandemic.
But the backlash against DeWine from his party’s conservative base over Ohio’s middle-of-the-road pandemic response has actually been mounting for months, as have rumblings about a possible GOP challenger from the governor’s right.
Missing from the equation, though, are the challengers.
More than a year out from the primary, few candidates have emerged — at least officially and as of right now — to try to pry the GOP nomination away from the top Republican in state government.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, Democrat Sherrod Brown’s opponent in the 2018 Senate race, is considered the Republican most likely to challenge DeWine, but isn’t yet committing to running, even as he hosts virtual town halls on the state’s economy and plans an 88-county “listening tour” that’s virtually a prerequisite for running statewide.
“I do not believe that this governor is the person today to move our state in the right direction, and I will continue to educate people so that they are aware of many of the things that are being done that will continue to damage Ohio in the long-run,” the Wadsworth Republican said.
Regarding the General Assembly’s veto override of a bill stripping some of the governor’s powers to address the pandemic without the legislature: “The people of Ohio do not believe that any single individual should have that much authority and power that is not at least tempered by the state House and Senate, and I agree 100 percent with that. No single branch should have as much authority as Governor DeWine has taken when it has come to lockdowns, shutdowns, curfews,” Renacci said.
It’s still early, so potential candidates may eventually move over to the governor’s race once the contest for retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s seat, the hotter of the two races, comes into clearer focus. It’s much harder to knock off a well-funded incumbent, while the Republican who emerges from the Senate primary will be well-positioned to take on a Democrat for an open seat.
In modern times, few serious challengers have emerged and none have managed to seize the nomination from incumbent Ohio governors, making the prospect of actually ousting DeWine internally a long shot.
But that isn’t deterring some from thinking about it. U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson (R., Troy) is rumored to be mulling over a 2022 run against DeWine, and central Ohio farmer Joe Blystone has launched a campaign website touting himself as a “constitutional conservative” for governor.
DeWine is considered politically vulnerable after directing the state’s mask mandate and lockdowns, which conservatives argue encroach on personal freedoms and harm small businesses.
“I talked to Republican leaders throughout Ohio who are saying they doubt that Republicans will support him,” Renacci said. “I will tell you that Democrats have said they support him and I understand that too, but the governor will have to get through a primary first of Republicans.”
DeWine has other conservative credentials. He signed a “heartbeat” law, currently on hold in the courts, that bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy and a “stand your ground” law that eliminates the duty to retreat before firing a gun in self-defense in public places — both conservative priorities.
“Governor DeWine is a formidable candidate for re-election — he currently runs unopposed and boasts a strong record of cutting taxes for Ohioans, passing the Heartbeat Bill, and signing into law the ‘stand your ground’ legislation,” said Tricia McLaughlin, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party.
And he’s still well-liked among center-right Republicans.
“I think Mike DeWine has shown great, great leadership though this very difficult crisis that threatens the lives of our families, and it’s unfortunate when anyone uses this crisis for political gain,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Turner (R., Dayton), who is taking steps toward launching a Senate bid as a Trump-friendly but less dogmatically aligned Republican against former state treasurer Josh Mandel and former state party chairman Jane Timken.
The Democratic side of the aisle hasn’t solidified either. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley are weighing campaigns, and it’s not clear yet how infighting on the right would impact the general election.