Nobody denies the Democratic field of candidates running for Ohio governor is crowded.
But the whether that is a good thing for the party — and its fortunes in November — depends on how the five candidates behave, according to political experts and party officials.
“I am not sure we can assume that a tight primary will damage a candidate for a general election unless the party emerges fractured,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville College.
Assuming no one drops out — or suddenly appears — by the Feb. 7 filing deadline, Democratic voters will chose among five candidates, two of whom have strong statewide name recognition.
Dennis Kucinich, a former U.S. congressman and former Cleveland mayor, joined the race on Wednesday. Kucinich has twice run for president, but has been out of Congress since 2012, after Republican-led redistricting combined his Cleveland-area district with the one held by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo. Kaptur defeated Kucinich in the Democratic primary.
Richard Cordray was also a late entry in the Democratic race, joining it in November after leaving his job as director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray has twice won statewide elections — once for Ohio treasurer and once for attorney general. He lost to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2010. President Barack Obama then picked him to lead the consumer protection bureau.
Former Ohio Rep. Connie Pillich of Cincinnati, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill are also in the running. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley was in the race but dropped out and said she would support Cordray. Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton withdrew her candidacy after Cordray picked her to be his running mate.
Kucinich on Friday selected Akron councilwoman Tara Samples to join him on the ticket.
Narrowed Republican field
There are just two candidates left on the Republican side: DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor. The field narrowed when DeWine tapped Secretary of State Jon Husted to be his running mate. Husted had been running for the top job. Then Rep. Jim Renacci changed races and said he would run for the Senate instead of governor after Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel abandoned his bid for that office, attributing the decision to his wife’s health.
Smith says DeWine is the frontrunner in the race and has what he called the “experience edge.” Taylor, who has been in state government since 2003, has taken aim at what she calls “career politicians,” hoping perhaps to borrow from the winning strategy employed by President Donald Trump in Ohio in 2016. She picked Cincinnati businesman Nathan Estruth to be her running mate.
“In many ways the Ohio GOP has been ground zero for a Trump-Kasich proxy war,” said Lee Hannah, assistant professor of political science at Wright State University. “I think that could continue into the primaries although I’m not really sure that Taylor and Estruth can keep up with DeWine and Husted’s fundraising,”
No cake walk
Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, sees Cordray as the frontrunner in the Democratic race and said the primary will give him a chance to knock off some rust since he hasn’t run for office since 2010.
But it’s far from a cake walk. Kucinich has strong name identification and a working class back story. Pillich is a lawyer, has an Air Force background and is the lone woman in the field. Schiavoni has a strong following in northeast Ohio, a part of the state crucial for any Democrat to win. And O’Neill, while perhaps best described as a wild card, has made enough controversial statements to draw headlines from one end of the state to the other —if nothing else, putting his name before voters.
Senate Republicans have started a process to remove him from the Supreme Court for campaigning while on the bench.
David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, says he is staying neutral. The party is holding candidate debates open to any of the Democrats willing to be vetted by the party. Only O’Neill has refused to be vetted, according to Pepper.
Pepper said his goal is to have an energetic, transparent primary and he sees it as a plus that five people and their running mates will be scouring the state for votes and preaching the Democratic message. When it’s over, he expects everyone to unite around the candidate who wins.
“The first thing we need to do is make sure the core Democrats are energized about our candidates,” he said.
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