This year’s governor’s race — the marquee contest in Ohio — is much closer than the 2014 contest, when Republican Gov. John Kasich drubbed his Democratic and scandal-plagued opponent, Ed FitzGerald.
Polls show that this year’s race between Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray is a virtual dead-heat. And some down-ticket races also appear to be close.
The ballot is loaded with races and issues both big and small: governor, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state, two seats on the Ohio Supreme Court, a U.S. senate election, congressional and state legislative races, local contests and issues, and State Issue 1 — a proposed constitutional amendment to change criminal sentences for some drug offenses.
Related: What would State Issue 1 do?
Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith said campaigns know it takes multiple contacts — ads, door knocks and phone calls — to influence voters.
The barrage of TV ads and mailers — plus bus tours, Ohio campaign stops and surrogate appearances by heavy hitters such as Presidnet Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, former Vice President Joe Biden, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren — is putting a bigger spotlight on the election this year.
And looming large over it all is someone who is not even on the ballot: President Trump.
“Typically, these elections are local affairs, even at the state level. But this is not a typical year,” Smith said. “To some degree, Trump is on the ballot in every contest because of our polarization and Trump’s divisiveness, which is unmatched in recent years.
“Trump’s presence has also energized both sides,” Smith said. “We will see whether that results in higher turnout.”
The Trump effect
Going back to 1978, voter turnout in off-year non-presidential elections has averaged 52.64 percent in Ohio, according to OhioElectionResults.com. The lowest midterm turnout during that period was in 2014 when just 40.65 percent of Ohio’s registered voters voted.
Republican consultant Mike Dawson, who operates the website, said provisional ballots that aren’t counted for 10 days could be crucial in a very tight race.
The president is scheduled to campaign for Ohio Republicans at a stop in Cleveland on Monday. Last week, Trump tweeted his support for DeWine and took a swipe at Cordray, saying, “Richard Cordray will let you down, just like he did when he destroyed the government agency that he ran. Clone of Pocahontas, that’s not for Ohio. Mike has my Total Endorsement!”
Cordray began his run for governor after leaving his job as the director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which was set up by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, long a target of Trump, who disparagingly refers to her as Pocahontas.
Related: Who is Richard Cordray?
Trump’s presence here may not be hugely influential, according to Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck.
“He certainly has been busy here and maybe it has been important in mobilizing his base,” Beck said. “But he needs to do more than appeal to his base, and those who are not in his base seem pretty negative towards him.”
Trump’s job approval rating is 44.2 percent while his disapproval rating is 49.7 percent in Ohio, the Baldwin Wallace poll found.
The same poll found voting enthusiasm higher among Democrats than Republicans, with 74 percent of Democrats saying this year’s election is more important than the one in 2014, and 59 percent of Republicans giving that same answer.
Related: Who is Mike DeWine?
Candidate for Ohio Governor Mike DeWine during a Dayton Chamber of Commerce meeting on Thursday, August 16. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
The governor’s race, followed by Issue 1, has received most of the attention this year. Although Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is facing re-election, polls show he’s leading by some 20 points over his Republican opponent, Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth.
The DeWine-Cordray contest is a rematch of sorts, since DeWine beat Cordray in the attorney general’s race in 2010. DeWine has dusted off some of the same criticisms of Cordray he used then, but has also blamed him in a series of commercials for the national economic downturn that hurt Ohio during the recession.
Cordray, meanwhile, is hammering DeWine over health care coverage, noting that DeWine sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which includes expanded Medicaid and protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
The Baldwin Wallace poll found more than three-quarters of Ohio voters named healthcare as a top issue in the U.S. Senate and governor races, and about nine in 10 voters say protections for people with pre-existing conditions should remain in law.
“I think health care is more vulnerable for DeWine because it’s more important to more voters, regardless of his position on it. Republicans in general are vulnerable to such attacks because of their ideology and the party’s general opposition to governmentally provided health coverage,” Smith said.
The race between DeWine and Cordray is expected to break spending records and it ranks as the third costliest governor’s race in the country this year. As of Oct. 17, the two campaigns spent a combined $34.82 million, including more than $27 million on TV ads. That doesn’t include money spent by ally groups such as the Republican Governors Association PAC.
In the closing days of October, DeWine loaned his campaign another $3 million, on top of the $1 million loan he made in 2017. He has declined to disclose whether he’ll require that the loans be repaid or if he’ll forgive them.
Related: Ohio governor race one of most expensive in U.S.; DeWine loans $3M to his campaignMuch at stake
University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine said the Ohio governor’s race is drawing big money because it is close and the winner will have a say in Ohio’s upcoming redistricting process after the 2020 census.
“If it’s a Republican governor signing off on a redistricting plan, then that might help Ohio Republicans to limit the impact of redistricting reform and maintain their edge in the U.S. House, as well as the state legislature, into the 2020s,” he said. “If, on the other hand, Cordray wins the governornship, then he might help to undo some of the partisan gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win 12 of 16 seats in the U.S. House from Ohio, as well as two-thirds of the state house and senate.”
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