VOICES: Senate, Ohio Supreme Court races neck-and-neck

Polling and campaign finance reports suggest that former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, the Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s re-election, is waging an uphill fight, with November’s election just 51 days away.

But two sets of campaigns appear neck-and-neck. One is the statewide competition between Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. (James David) Vance for one of Ohio’s U.S. Senate seats.

Also neck-and-neck – according to a USA TODAY Network Ohio/Suffolk University poll the Columbus Dispatch reported Wednesday – are races for three Ohio Supreme Court seats.

Leading off is the contest between Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner and Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy to succeed retiring Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. Allowing for the usual ifs, ands and buts, the poll found that 42.2% of likely voters preferred Kennedy, while 41.8% preferred Brunner, a gap of only 0.4%.

In the other two Supreme Court races, Republican Justice R. Patrick DeWine (Mike DeWine’s son) led his challenger, Democratic Judge Marilyn Zayas, of the Cincinnati-based Ohio Court of Appeals (1st District) by just 2.4 percentage points, the Dispatch reported.

And Republican Justice Patrick Fischer led his challenger, Democratic Judge Terri Jamison, of the Columbus-based Court of Appeals (10th District) by just 1.6 percentage points.

That suggests Democrats are competitively positioned in the three Supreme Court races. But until early voting starts Oct. 13, voters haven’t seen the ballot. And for the first time in more than 110 years, party labels will accompany the names of Supreme Court and Ohio Court of Appeals candidates. That is, the ballot will cue voters about judicial candidates’ political leanings. No Ohio voter has seen a judicial ballot like this year’s, and whether that party label favors Republicans – as the GOP-run General Assembly hopes – is an open question.

Second, business lobbies will be dumping an avalanche of money into the campaigns of Republican Justices Kennedy, DeWine, and Fischer.

Those lobbies know something that rank-and-file voters sometimes forget: The Supreme Court can be all that stands between Ohio households and budget-busting utility rates, and between injured Ohioans and claim-denying insurance companies.

Little wonder that in June a coalition of Ohio’s major business lobbies announced they would move heaven and earth to elect Kennedy chief justice and re-elect DeWine and Fischer: The political action committees (PACs) of the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio; the Ohio Business Roundtable; the Ohio Chamber of Commerce; the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and the Ohio Manufacturers’ [ok] Association.

Among the leaders of those groups are former U.S. Reps. Patrick Tiberi (Business Roundtable) and Steve Stivers (Ohio Chamber), both suburban Columbus Republicans.

Earlier, as General Assembly members, each sponsored anti-plaintiff “tort reform” measures that tried to crimp Ohioans’ right to seek damages for injuries.

One was House Bill 350 of 1996 (Tiberi), which then-Gov. George V. Voinovich signed, but which the Ohio Supreme Court overturned “in toto” as unconstitutional in a bipartisan, 1999 ruling. The other measure, Senate Bill 80 of 2004 (Stivers), was signed by then-Gov. Bob Taft. The Stivers bill most recently figured in the news when its provisions (upheld by the state Supreme Court) limited the damages a jury awarded a young woman who, at age 15, had had oral and vaginal intercourse forced on her by a church pastor.

The hullabaloo over the governorship and Senate seat may mask the importance to Ohioans of the Brunner-Kennedy, DeWine-Zayas, and Fischer-Jamison contests. That’d be a mistake, because the high court referees so many facets of voters’ and policyholders’ and consumers’ lives – and on some days, the justices are all that stand between an out-of-control legislature and the Ohio Constitution.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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