Why Ohio may be about to test the limits of Trumpism

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BRACKSVILLE, Ohio — No one can credibly say that Mike DeWine fires up the crowd. Winning the final slot at a Republican candidate’s pitch in a posh Cleveland suburb Thursday night did him no favors, as most of his audience was already on its feet for 90 minutes. And his fellow GOP candidates had more compelling one-liners than DeWine, who won his first elected office in 1976, needed only the thinnest of introductions, and was giving the same speech for the fourth time that day.

“You were very patient. There were a lot of speakers,” DeWine said with an apologetic shrug shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday, just moments before Game 5 of the World Series began. “I want to say something about JD, I’ve known him for a while. He is a good man and will represent us well in the United States Senate. This race is extremely important.”

DeWine was referring to JD Vance, the Republican Trump personally selected as the party’s nominee for a rare open Senate seat in Ohio. Vance’s run against Democrat Tim Ryan, who looks surprisingly close in red Ohio after a year in which Republicans should have the wind at their backs, has made the race one of the most closely watched in the country.

For DeWine, that means putting some of his political muscle into helping Vance amid his own re-election bid against former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. In the run-up to Monday’s election, DeWine will be in Dayton with former President Donald Trump for a rally specifically to give Vance a boost.

“This is a rally for JD Vance, and I’m certainly rooting for him,” DeWine told me in Zanesville between his speech and his bus ride north to the next stop. “I think it’s important to have JD Vance in the United States Senate.”

It’s all a far cry from two years ago, at the start of the pandemic, when DeWine was at another Trump rally and drew boos from the crowd when Trump mentioned his name. The MAGA faithful were angered by the governor’s anti-Covid policies, which they saw as draconian, but had attracted the passing respect of Democrats in the state. DeWine weathered the boos well, and come Monday, he’ll be at Trump’s side again, despite his contempt held on to what happened at his previous workplace on January 6, 2021.

That’s because DeWine, perhaps better than any other Republican in the country, understands how to balance his own independence with the elements of Trump who reworked the core of his party.

Polls show DeWine well ahead of Whaley, consistently by double digits. But Whaley runs like he still has a chance, and maybe he does. She spent the week hustling around the state, including a fundraiser Tuesday in Cleveland, looking for another, late infusion of cash. Her pains are sharp, her message heavily focused on wooing voters who remain shocked by the Supreme Court’s decision to end a half-century of precedent set by Roe v. Wade on abortion rights. Democrats have a clear advantage in early voting, absentee and registered voters in Ohio, especially in urban districts where results exceeded 2018. Strategists also insist that the public survey is missing entire segments of the electorate — especially women.

Still, it’s hard to see how it reduces the deficit. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of polls shows Whaley down about 20 percentage points, a brutal reality for a candidate whose talent has grown tenfold since I first met her at a US Conference of Mayors event just a few years ago.

“I think the race has changed quite significantly since Roe. We felt that especially in the suburbs with women across the state,” Whaley told me in Youngstown on Tuesday.

From the dispassionate perspective of my home state, Whaley had two built-in advantages: She was mayor of Dayton during mass shooting, giving her a first-hand trial by fire; and she remained a fierce defender of abortion rights long before anyone seriously imagined they would fall. News flash: school shootings continuedand reproductive health falls.

Still, Whaley is struggling to find a resonant message that will reach voters. And, embedded in that is this reality: Ohio has never elected a female governor; the only woman to fill the role, she did so just 11 days after her Republican governor resigned to take her Senate post. Hillary Clinton won 43% of the vote in 2016; Joe Biden was ahead four years later by two points.

A former state legislator texted me predicting that he expected the gubernatorial race to be a “blowout.” Still, she wondered if the lack of other competitive races on the ballot would reduce Democratic turnout, hurting Ryan’s chances of defeating Vance. Meanwhile, the lawmaker wonders, “How many people are they going to cross just for Tim?”

However, if the traditional Democratic coalition turns out for Ryan, Whaley could still succeed. “If they show up, then the rest of the vote we can still survive,” former state Sen. Bob Hagen, who is trying to return to the chamber, told me at a dive bar in Youngstown on Tuesday as we waited for Whaley to arrive with others Democratic candidates for a rally.

Others have less optimism in their tank about Whaley’s chances. “She started too late. You have to raise a lot of money to get started, and she didn’t,” Columbus-based financial adviser Steven Daley, 57, told me Wednesday night at an event hosted by Ryan’s campaign in Bowling Green. “We’re going to be a lot like Georgia, where a lot of voters split their tickets for Senate and Governor.”

For his part, DeWine is as measured as ever and running like the race is a lot closer than it looks. Back at his rally here in Northeast Ohio, he highlighted the work of his wife, Fran DeWine, with Dolly Parton to put books in the hands of 362,000 Ohio children every month. He talked about hiring companies like Intel to the state to make up for decades of manufacturing losses. And in a stirring speech about the value of good schools, he linked a strong education system to the ability of parents to keep their children close to home once they are ready to join the workforce.

DeWine talks a lot about jobs — even though Ohio guided states with job losses in September and has yet to climb out of the current pandemic employment crater of 133,000 jobs.

“If you give us another four years, we will continue on this path. We started down that path and saw an expansion of our career centers around Ohio,” DeWine said near Cleveland.

The crowd responded favorably for the most part, but not uniformly pleased. “He closed the churches but left the abortion clinics open,” laments 70-year-old Beatrice Poutienis. “I will not vote for him. But I will not vote against him either.”

For DeWine, who has mastered this balancing act better than most, that’s enough.

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