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FBI investigation, Trump, may factor into Ohio governor’s race

Democrats often accuse Republicans of living in the past, but in this year’s election in Ohio it’s the Democrats who want to look backward: to 2006.

That’s the year a controversial president and an investment and ethics scandal rocked state government, leading voters to send Republicans packing. Democrats were installed into four top offices, including governor.

Mike DeWine

Back then, Democrats shouted about the “culture of corruption” in Columbus, and you don’t have to listen hard to hear that same slogan as Democrats talk about the collapse of the online charter school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, and the sudden resignation of Republican Cliff Rosenberger as Ohio House speaker amid an FBI inquiry.

“There is no indication this is going away,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper. “Two-thousand-six is perhaps the clearest analogy to this year. A scandal called Coingate took down almost the entire Republican ticket. ‘Charter-gate’ and ECOT are Coingate on steroids.”

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Coingate was an investment and theft scandal that involved a prominent GOP fundraiser, Tom Noe, who went to prison. That and the increasing unpopularity of the Iraq War and then President George W. Bush led to huge Democratic gains in the November election.

But Ohio Republican Party spokesman Blaine Kelly brushed aside claims that 2018 will be a rerun of 2006.

“The Democrats don’t have a message so they have to spin some sort of conspiracy theory. We will run on the booming economy. Unemployment is down, taxes are down. Ohioans have more money in their pockets,” Kelly said. “They’re going to get out and vote with their pocketbooks.”

Related: Auditor on ECOT school case: ‘I believe this may rise to a criminal act’

ECOT audit: Possible criminal charges

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost on Thursday released a scathing audit of ECOT and sent it to state and federal prosecutors for possible criminal investigation. Yost, who is running for attorney general, announced his campaign is donating to charity the $29,395 received from ECOT-related donors over the years.

Auditor of State Dave Yost spells out findings from his department’s audit of the ECOT online charter school. LAURA BISCHOFF / STAFF (Columbus Bureau)

Democrats pounced on the audit, saying GOP leaders failed to protect taxpayers and students from ECOT abuses.

Republican candidate for auditor Keith Faber said the audit shows “ECOT abused the state’s public trust, deceived parents, and most importantly, hurt the thousands of students who sought a quality education. Thanks to the strong charter school reforms put in place while I was Senate president and the diligent work of Auditor Yost and his staff, ECOT was caught and is out of business.”

But Democrat Zack Space, Faber’s opponent, said as a lawmaker, Faber abetted the ECOT scam.

“Keith Faber cannot in good faith seek election as Ohio’s chief watchdog of taxpayer money while the $36,513.34 he raised from ECOT sources remains in his campaign account. I call on Keith Faber to follow Auditor Yost’s lead and donate this money to charitable organizations immediately.”

Related: Payday lender made 3 international trips with Ohio House speaker

Jon Husted, Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, from left, his wife Tina, stand with Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine and his wife Fran at an a primary election night rally, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston) (Columbus Bureau)

The Roseberger factor

While the ECOT scandal plays out, the FBI is keeping quiet about its investigation of Rosenberger.

Sources familiar with the inquiry said agents are looking at a four-day trip Rosenberger took to London in August 2017 that was organized by GOPAC Education Fund and sponsored by corporate interests, including payday lenders. House Bill 123, which calls for significant payday lending reforms, stalled in the Ohio House under Rosenberger’s leadership. 

Cordray wins Democratic governor primary

An investigation by this newspaper found Rosenberger made three international trips — to London, France and China — along with Carol Stewart of Advance America, a payday lender.

In his resignation statement, Rosenberger said he believes all his actions have been lawful and ethical.

Related: House Speaker hires defense attorney over FBI questions

The Trump factor

Most observers see the Ohio’s governor’s race as close, though it’s worth noting that Republican Donald Trump won Ohio by more than eight percentage points just 18 months ago.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter from the University of Virginia, lists the Ohio governor’s race as “a leans Republican rating there, although it could move to toss-up before too long.”

Trump-hugging proved a successful strategy for U.S. Senate candidate Jim Renacci but no so much for Congressional candidates Melanie Leneghan in the 12th District and Christina Hagan in the 16th District, both of whom lost in their primaries. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who enthusiastically embraced the Trump message during her campaign for governor against Mike DeWine — even hoisting a shotgun at a gun rally outside the statehouse — also lost badly on Tuesday after a campaign noteworthy by its often nasty tone.

Trump will have an impact on Ohio’s races in the fall, but no one is quite sure what that impact will be.

“There’s no doubt that Trump will be the elephant in the room this November,” said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven, a former speech writer for Democrat Ted Strickland. “His presence will be impossible to miss, even if no one says his name. Across the country we’ve seen that Democratic candidates don’t really have to invoke Trump because his mere existence energizes the Democratic base.”

He added: “On the Republican side, the dance is a little more complicated. We’ve seen DeWine and Husted make implied overtures to Trump loyalists even if they don’t show up for Trump’s rallies or photo opportunities.”

Payday lending bill comes to life as House speaker faces probe

The Kasich factor

The Ohio governor’s race will determine who succeeds John Kasich, who was once very popular within the party’s conservative wing. But there is an odd thing about Kasich’s role in the 2018 election: it’s almost non-existent.

Kasich endorsed Taylor in the GOP primary, but she practically ran away from him and promised voters she’d pull the plug on the Medicaid expansion that may be his signature achievement.

(AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

The day after the primary, Kasich balked at endorsing DeWine to replace him, and made clear he hasn’t backed off on his support for expanded Medicaid.

“I feel very very strongly about the issue of Medicaid expansion and I want to see uniters. I don’t want to see dividers,” he said. “I want to see a uniter, somebody that can transcend politics to put the people of the state first.”

The only gubernatorial candidate saying he’ll keep Medicaid expansion is the Democratic nominee: Richard Cordray. DeWine has said he favors dramatic reforms to Medicaid, which he views as unsustainable in its current form.

Medicaid expansion covers an additional 725,000 low-income Ohioans, a large portion of whom report that they suffer from mental health and addiction issues. The federal government is currently picking up most of the tab for the extra enrollees.

Challenging year

The next governor faces the regular burdens of running the seventh largest state: housing prisoners, plowing and patrolling highways, funding schools, regulating industries and more.

But he will also inherit a raging opioid addiction crisis that killed more than 4,000 Ohioans in 2016, demands to reduce gun violence while protecting 2nd Amendment rights, oversight of a new medical marijuana industry, an unemployment compensation fund that teeters on the brink of insolvency, one of the highest infant mortality rates among African-American babies in the nation, and calls for reforms of a payday lending industry that legally is allowed to charge borrowers some of the highest interest rates in the nation.

As they lead their tickets in the fall, Cordray and DeWine will be called on to energize voters in an election when Trump and Kasich aren’t on the ballot.

That might be a challenge.

DeWine and Cordray faced each other once before, in the 2010 Attorney General’s race won by DeWine. But it remains to be seen if the rematch captures the public’s attention, and gets them excited to vote.

Niven said DeWine and Cordray each have a different corner on the same market: dullness.

“DeWine has the man from another era boring, like a grandpa on the porch going on about how much he enjoys pie,” he said. “Cordray offers the classic monotone boring of an accountant offering a list of reasons you should consider itemizing next year.

“The good news for both of them is that they are in absolutely no danger of losing the race due to their opponent’s charm and charisma.”

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