Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley’s expected run for governor could shake up race

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

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Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Free-for-all predicted as pool of candidates increases on both sides.

UPDATE: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley made it official Monday that she is running for governor. Read the latest news here

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted announced Sunday he’s also getting in the race. Read the latest news here

ORIGINAL STORY: If Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley runs for governor, as expected, she'll face these daunting facts: no woman has ever been elected governor in Ohio, just one Democrat has held the office in the last 27 years, and the last Daytonian to be nominated for the state's highest elective office was James M. Cox in 1916.

Oh, and there is the million dollar question: Can she raise enough money? The last competitive general election race for governor cost $35 million between the two sides.

But Whaley could shake up the race, experts on both sides of the aisle say, though she would certainly enter the race as an underdog.

Long mentioned as a candidate for higher office, Whaley made history this year as the first Dayton mayor to run unopposed for election since there has been separate contests for the office.

RELATED: Jon Husted announces run for governor

ExploreRELATED: DeWine, Husted each have $2.5 million on hand for 2018 run

She has worked hard to network statewide, forming the Ohio Mayor’s Alliance and playing a pivotal role in the 2011 referendum to defeat Senate Bill 5, a GOP-backed bill to gut collective bargaining rights for public employees.

And at 41, she is widely seen as a young, rising star within the Ohio Democratic Party. She may not be a household name across the state, but that could be an advantage if the election is one where voters are demanding change.

Ohioans “are desperate for new leaders, and Ohio Democrats are looking forward to a spirited primary, when our candidates will make the case that they represent change from the status quo,” said Kirstin Alvanitakis, spokesperson for the Ohio Democratic Party. “If Mayor Whaley chooses to run for governor, we would welcome her to the field.”

RELATED: Whaley's political committee seeks support for possible governor bid

Crowded field

Whaley isn’t in it yet, but there is a trail of clues that she’ll run.

The website WhaleyForOhio is registered and Whaley’s political campaign has already been soliciting donations to “gauge enthusiasm” for her possible entry into the race. Whaley hosts a fundraising event at a local brewery on Monday.

“She’s aggressive and ambitious and she’ll work hard,” said Rhine McLin, Dayton’s former mayor who ruffled some feathers among local Democrats when she did not endorse Whaley during the 2013 mayoral contest.

ExploreRELATED: Kasich backs Taylor for governor in ‘18

Whaley is well-versed in local politics, having been elected Dayton city commissioner in 2005 and winning re-election four years later. She then defeated former judge and Montgomery County auditor A.J. Wagner to become mayor in 2013.

Many of her potential opponents have wider name recognition and lengthier resumes, though the field on the Democratic side is more unsettled.

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Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni.

Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni.

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Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni.

The pool of candidates is already getting crowded and will become more so if some long-rumored names get in. On the Democratic side, former state representative Connie Pillich of Cincinnati, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman and former Congresswoman Betty Sutton of Akron have announced their candidacies. The GOP primary ballot will likely include Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine of Cedarville, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor of Green and Secretary of State Jon Husted of suburban Columbus.

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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted 

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted 

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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted 

There is no telling whether all those candidates will remain in the race, but Ohio has no run-off system so the more crowded a primary is, the lower the threshold becomes for winning, said Kyle Kondik, an Ohio University graduate, an editor at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.”

ExploreRELATED: Is Dennis Kucinich running for governor?

Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich is speaking statewide about charter schools, sparking speculation that he may be interested. And former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who now directs the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, may too jump into Democratic primary, creating a free-for-all that could help or hurt the party depending on how it goes.

“It may be best for the party and the party’s chances next year if they just let everybody fight it out and see who emerges,” Kondik said.

Red state?

Whaley — or whoever the Democratic nominee is — has work to do to be competitive against the Republicans in November 2018.

The party got drubbed in last year’s presidential contest, as Donald Trump took Ohio by more than eight percentage points. The outcome was even worse in the Senate, with Republican Rob Portman defeating former Gov. Ted Strickland by 21 points. And Democrats can’t look to 2014 governor’s race with any confidence either.

Democrat Ed FitzGerald lost to Republican Gov. John Kasich in that contest by 30 points.

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Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton.

Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton.

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Former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton.

Changing demographics make Ohio an increasingly tough slog for a Democrat, said Paul Leonard, adjunct professor of political science at Wright State University and Dayton’s mayor from 1981 to 1987.

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“Ohio is no longer a purple state — Ohio is a red state,” said Leonard, who argues that the state’s diversified economy has led to blue-collar and union jobs being replaced with white-collar ones, more likely to be held by right-leaning workers.

Elections can be fickle — the Democrats in 2006 won all but one statewide contest — but winning in a red state, or even a purple one, requires a base that reaches into the state’s main population centers.

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Congressman Jim Renacci. Getty Images.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Congressman Jim Renacci. Getty Images.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

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Congressman Jim Renacci. Getty Images.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Gregory Gantt, who was chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party for seven years until 2012, questions whether Whaley can make that leap.

But Gantt said the mayor’s chair is a good launching pad for higher office, noting that Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Turner was Dayton’s mayor before he ran for Congress in 2002.

“She’s certainly in a spot that gets some credibility towards running for the next level,” Gantt said. “Just having the title of mayor of a big city in Ohio gets you in the game.”

Leonard said Whaley has forged close relationships with some powerful political players, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. Although Brown isn’t expected to back a candidate during the primary, he could be an important ally for Whaley and help with fundraising should she emerge as the nominee, Leonard said.

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Ohio Lt. Governor Mary Taylor.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Ohio Lt. Governor Mary Taylor.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

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Ohio Lt. Governor Mary Taylor.

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Early test

One early test for Whaley might be whether she develops an audience for views that some Ohioans might consider extremely left of center.

She gleefully presided over one of the first gay marriages in Ohio after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex weddings.

She has been a leading voice for making Dayton a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees, at times clashing with Turner, who accused her of putting the community at risk by wanting to increase refugee resettlements.

And Whaley hasn’t backed down. In 2015 she signed a letter urging the Obama Administration to increase the number of refugees the United States would accept to help ease displacement caused by the Syrian war.

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Dennis Kucinich

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Dennis Kucinich

Credit: Kyle Nagel

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Dennis Kucinich

Credit: Kyle Nagel

Credit: Kyle Nagel

“We will welcome the Syrian families to make homes and new lives in our cities,” the letter read.

ExploreRELATED: Dayton mayor says refugees welcome here

One of Whaley’s political strengths is she isn’t afraid of taking risks, said Karl Keith, Montgomery County auditor and a prominent member of the county Democratic party. (Whaley’s husband, Sam Braun, works in Keith’s office.)

Keith said as mayor Whaley has tackled big-picture issues such as education, which she has sought to reform through the City of Learners and Preschool Promise initiatives, which guarantees universal access to 4-year-olds across the city.

Whaley also worked hard and successfully to persuade voters to raise the city’s income tax, part of which is being used to fund universal pre-school in the city, Keith said.

According to Keith, Whaley has helped lead Dayton through a tumultuous economic time and that the city is turning the corner, with rising property values and jobs and redevelopment returning to the urban core.

“Some of the things she’s doing with those issues won’t pay dividends for years to come, but she has a farsighted vision for approaching problems,” Keith said.

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray.

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray.

The Trump factor

Although he isn’t on the ballot, one of the biggest factors in next year’s governor’s race may be President Donald Trump.

Trump easily defeated Hillary Clinton in the state last year, but a rocky start to his administration has caused his poll numbers to slip. Some predict that a strong wave of anti-Trump and anti-Republican sentiment could fuel a Democratic surge next year, opening the door for an insurgent candidate like Whaley.

ExploreRELATED: Trump at 100 days

But most signs point to Ohio getting redder, not drifting toward the other direction, said Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science with the University of Dayton. And the GOP’s candidate pool includes people like DeWine and Husted, who have proved in past elections that they can pull votes from Ohioans of both parties.

Cedarville University Center for Political Studies Director Mark Caleb Smith cautioned against making too many conclusions about voter attitudes in an election that is 18 months away.

“It’s an eternity between now and when real decisions have to be made,” he said.

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Expanding field

Ohio’s 2018 gubernatorial election won’t be until November 2018, but candidates on both sides of the aisle are raising money and lining up support for the chance to replace Republican Gov. John Kasich, who can’t run again because of term limits. Here is a look at some of the declared and rumored candidates.

Republicans

Mike DeWine. Undoubtedly the most politically experienced candidate, DeWine has served as Ohio Attorney General, where he is in his second term; U.S. Senator; Ohio Lieutenant Governor, U.S. House member, Ohio State Senator and Greene County prosecutor. At 70, he is the oldest person currently in the field.

Jon Husted. Now in his second term as Ohio Secretary of State, Husted, 49, previously served in the Ohio Senate and in the Ohio House, where he was speaker from 2005 to 2009. He attended the University of Dayton and was a member of the school's Division III national championship team in 1989.

Jim Renacci. Is probably the least known of the Republican candidates, although he is now in his fourth term as a congressman from Wadsworth. Renacci, 58, backed Donald Trump early in the presidential primaries last year and hopes to mimic the president's rise as businessman turned politician. Spent 30 years in business and is considered one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

Mary Taylor. Has been lieutenant governor since 2011. Taylor, 51, previously served in the Ohio House and as Ohio State Auditor after beginning her political career as a city council member in Green, Ohio.

Democrats

Richard Cordray. Any discussion of the governor's race seems to include Cordray, 58, who has never publicly declared interest. Is a former Ohio House member, Ohio Solicitor General, Ohio Treasurer and Ohio Attorney General. Was appointed by former President Barack Obama to be the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a position he still holds. Was defeated by DeWine in his re-election bid for AG in 2010.

Dennis Kucinich. He's been a figure in Ohio politics for nearly 40 years, after winning the mayor's seat in Cleveland in 1978. Kucinich, 70, also served in the Ohio Senate and eight terms in the U.S. House, losing his seat following redistricting in 2012. He also ran for president twice. If he runs, he would be the best known of the Democrats seeking the governorship.

Connie Pillich: A former Air Force captain, Pillich, 56, served three terms in the Ohio House. She challenged Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel in 2014 in her only statewide race but lost badly, carrying just 43 percent of the vote.

Joe Schiavoni: The 37-year-old Schiavoni will likely be the youngest candidate from either party in the race. He represents an Ohio Senate district that includes Youngstown and Boardman, where he lives. He was elected Senate Minority Leader by his colleagues in 2014.

Betty Sutton. She lost to Renacci in 2012 after redistricting placed her in the 16th congressional district. Previously she served three terms in the 13th district. Sutton, 53, has also served in the Ohio House.

Nina Turner. A firebrand who often appears on national television, Turner was an early supporter of Bernie Sanders in last year's presidential race and is being urged by some to run for governor. However, Turner, 49, was soundly defeated by Husted in the 2014 Secretary of State race, carrying less than 36 percent of the vote. She is a former Ohio Senator from Cleveland and also served as the Senate's Minority Whip. She began her legislative career as an aide to then Sen. Rhine McLin, D-Dayton.

Nan Whaley, 41, has served on the Dayton City Commission since 2005. She was elected mayor of Dayton in 2013 and is unopposed this year. Has long been rumored for higher office, and has many contacts throughout the Democratic Party, both in Ohio and nationally.