COLUMBUS— With the midterm election less than two months away, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and his Democratic opponent, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, have very different hopes.
DeWine, substantially ahead in recent polls and with a big cash advantage, seeks to maintain that and tout Ohio’s economic development in seeking a second four-year term.
Whaley looks to leverage hot-button issues, including abortion, guns, the FirstEnergy scandal and legislative redistricting in motivating voter turnout — especially among women, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn June 24 of Roe v. Wade.
DeWine’s campaign has focused largely on economics, highlighting his role in bringing big projects to Ohio — including Intel’s computer chip factories, a $20 billion initial investment expected to create thousands of jobs. DeWine and President Joe Biden attended that project’s groundbreaking on Friday.
Whaley announced her own job plan last week, the “One Good Job Pledge,” based on the assertion that one job should be enough to provide for a family. In it she explicitly calls for strengthened labor unions and jobs on infrastructure projects, including replacing lead water pipes and increasing broadband internet access.
Her plan calls for investing $65 million in an Apprenticeship Readiness Program, providing training in skilled trades for Ohioans to work on infrastructure instead of hiring from out of state.
“While these important programs already exist around the state, they do not receive sufficient support from the state,” Whaley’s news release says. “This investment, paid for with federal funds from the bipartisan infrastructure bill and state and local workforce development funds over the next four years, will support more than 17,000 Ohioans looking to learn the skills they’ll need for good-paying, union jobs rebuilding Ohio.”
DeWine’s campaign did not answer specifics on other policies, instead framing him in opposition to Democrats.
“Ohioans see that Gov. DeWine is fighting back against Democrats’ reckless inflationary policies to protect their way of life, pocketbooks, and future,” said Tricia McLaughlin, director of communications for the DeWine campaign. “He is exceptionally well-positioned to win come November.”
In the past two years, DeWine has announced hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for healthcare, economic development, law enforcement and education. But Democrats point out that much of that money for which DeWine takes credit is federal funding passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress as COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus.
Whaley and other Democrats also assail him on guns and abortion, and allege he has closer-than-reported ties to the FirstEnergy scandal.
Abortion is a key issue for Whaley, with Courtney Rice, communications director for Whaley’s campaign, saying that Roe’s overturn created a “massive increase in momentum and enthusiasm” among pro-choice voters.
DeWine has usually avoided commenting directly on abortion-related proposals but has signed bills drastically restricting abortion access and signaled tacit support for more. The week before Roe’s overturn, he told Ohio Right to Life that he would “go as far as we can” to ban abortion.
The vast majority of Ohioans oppose such restriction, Rice said, citing the high-profile cases of a woman who needed an abortion in order to have cancer treatment and a 10-year-old rape victim who both had to travel to Indiana as a consequence of the state’s ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable — usually at five or six weeks of gestation — known as the “Heartbeat Bill.”
Until at least mid-April, DeWine’s campaign website touted him as “the most pro-life governor in Ohio history,” highlighting his signature of the “Heartbeat Bill” and the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act.” By mid-July, however, the site no longer mentioned abortion at all.
Whaley has said she would work to keep abortion accessible to Ohioans and would veto any bill that restricts abortion access. Since Roe’s overturn, Whaley has said she would “fight to enshrine the protections previously afforded in Roe into the Ohio Constitution.”
In the wake of the August 2019 mass shooting in Dayton’s Oregon District, DeWine proposed a modest package of gun-control measures dubbed “Strong Ohio.” But those went nowhere in the General Assembly, and since then he has instead signed several bills loosening gun laws.
“Three years ago Gov. DeWine looked the people of Dayton in the eye at a vigil following the mass shooting in Dayton and told them he’d ‘Do Something’ to make Ohio’s communities safe from gun violence,” Rice said. “Since then, he has gone against law enforcement, community activists, teachers, and families to sign dangerous legislation like permitless concealed carry and arming teachers with no more than 24 hours of training.”
In August state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, re-filed many of the “Strong Ohio” proposals as Senate Bill 357. Both DeWine and Whaley indicated support for the bill, though it won’t be considered until after the Nov. 8 election.
House Bill 6, which passed in 2019, included a $1.3 billion bailout for FirstEnergy’s two nuclear plants. Prosecutors allege Akron-based FirstEnergy paid nearly $61 million in bribes to then-House Speaker Larry Householder to get HB 6 passed. Householder was expelled from the General Assembly last June and faces a federal corruption trial.
In early 2019 DeWine appointed Sam Randazzo, a central figure in the scandal, as Public Utilities Commission of Ohio board chair. Randazzo resigned when the bribery scandal broke. He has not been criminally charged, but was named in a state civil lawsuit and $8 million of his assets have been frozen.
A federal criminal investigation is ongoing. Lawmakers repealed the bill’s nuclear-plant bailout, but the bill’s subsidies for coal plants and other projects remain.
Neither DeWine nor any of his direct associates have been charged in that ongoing corruption case. In January DeWine said he would be open to further changes in HB 6 so long as Ohio’s nuclear power plants are protected, but has not backed any specific proposals to do so.
Former President Donald Trump made no endorsement for governor during the four-way Republican primary, but last week — ahead of attending a rally in Youngstown for U.S. Senate candidate JD Vance this Saturday — he issued a brief statement endorsing DeWine’s reelection. Whaley swiftly denounced it as an example of DeWine’s opportunism.
“After avoiding being seen with Trump for years, he’s happy to take his endorsement now that he needs it,” she said.
Debate or no debate?
The Ohio Debate Commission has scheduled a gubernatorial debate at 9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 10, at the Akron-Summit County Public Library. Whaley has accepted, but DeWine has not responded.
Jill Zimon, executive director of the Ohio Debate Commission, said the body has not heard from the DeWine campaign since May. The commission has not yet set a final date for acceptance, or decided what to do if he doesn’t participate, she said.
McLaughlin didn’t directly answer whether DeWine would participate in the debate, but suggested he will not.
“Throughout the fall, Gov. DeWine and his opponent will have ample opportunity to outline their very different records and visions for Ohio,” she said. “This includes during the Ohio Association of Regional Councils Forum, the Vote for Ohio Kids forum on Oct. 6, as well as the multiple Ohio newspaper endorsement screenings that have long served as de-facto debates.”
McLaughlin said DeWine “has held more statewide television addresses and press conferences than any Governor in Ohio history.”
Rice said Whaley not only agreed to the Ohio Debate Commission event, but has accepted an invitation from the Nexstar TV group and a joint forum at the Columbus Metropolitan Club. Nexstar has five Ohio stations.
Rice said Whaley’s campaign is also talking with two other organizations that have not announced debates because they’re waiting for a response from DeWine.
“If Gov. DeWine isn’t willing to defend his record, why is he evening running for reelection?” Rice said.
Polling and fundraising
Polls tracked by FiveThirtyEight show increased support for both candidates since the May 3 primary as voters make up their minds. But a wide gap remains, according to mid-August polls from Republican-affiliated Trafalgar Group and the nonpartisan Emerson College Polling Center. Trafalgar puts DeWine’s support at 54% and Whaley’s at 38%, while Emerson has DeWine at 49% and Whaley at 33%.
McLaughlin said DeWine is not taking any polling lead lead for granted. The campaign is “pounding the pavement across the state knocking doors, making phone calls, and meeting with voters at fairs, parades, tailgates — you name it, we’re there,” she said.
Rice, however, said abortion has driven a surge in voter registration among Democratic women, throwing off polls. She also points to two early August polls from Democratic-linked Lake Research Partners that put the race at 43% Whaley, 44% DeWine. Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, tweeted Aug. 23 that “Our internal polling is consistent with this data” from the LRP polls.
Rice also said Emerson, though a nonpartisan polling firm, doesn’t have a strong record of accurately predicting Ohio elections.
Republican statewide candidates have outraised Democrats across the board, and the disparity is greatest in the governor’s race.
In its finance report for June 11 to Aug. 3, DeWine’s campaign showed $2.5 million in contributions and nearly $9.5 million in cash on hand.
“Our fundraising numbers reflect that same level of enthusiasm that we are seeing from the grassroots,” McLaughlin said.
For roughly the same period, Whaley’s campaign took in $910,000 and had $2.7 million on hand.
Rice, noting that money doesn’t necessarily translate directly to votes, asserted that’s enough.
“We’re going to have the money necessary to make sure Ohioans know that Nan is a working-class leader from Dayton who shares their values and simultaneously hold DeWine accountable for his extreme record on his abortion and his unwillingness to stand up for Ohioans on issues ranging from gun safety to statewide economic development,” she said.
Sept. 23: Ballots for active-duty military and overseas voters must be ready.
Oct. 11: Voter registration deadline for the Nov. 8 election.
Oct. 12: Counties must have regular absentee ballots ready to send out; in-person early voting begins.
Nov. 5: Applications for absentee ballots must be received by noon at county boards of election.
Nov. 7: Absentee ballots mailed to boards of election must be postmarked by this date. End of in-person early voting.
Nov. 8: Polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Absentee ballots returned by a method other than U.S. mail must arrive by the time polls close.
Nov. 18: Absentee ballots returned by mail must be received by boards of election. So must overseas and military ballots.