CEDARVILLE, Ohio (AP) — In the era before President Donald Trump, Republican Mike DeWine’s status as an easy favorite to win Ohio’s governor’s race would have been assured.
The 70-year-old attorney general, who announced his long-anticipated bid Sunday, is one of the state’s most familiar and high-profile public figures, a former U.S. senator and lieutenant governor with a big wholesome-looking family, an extensive political network and $2.5 million already in the bank.
But it remains to be seen how DeWine’s traditional political profile will play in a national political climate that’s been upended by President Donald Trump. DeWine’s two announced Republican challengers are already employing some of Trump’s populist campaign tactics.
U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci is pushing himself as a political-outsider businessman and hiring up former staffers from Trump’s successful presidential campaign. Secretary of State Jon Husted, despite his record of bipartisan compromise, launched his campaign with ads that capitalized on divisive remarks that came back to haunt high-profile Democrats, including saying his family “would firmly fit in Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables.’”
“It’s a different political world that we’re looking at,” said Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith, while predicting that DeWine will still at least begin the race as the presumed front-runner.
“I’m not sure there’s another candidate in the race that can really exploit that (populist strategy) like a Donald Trump could,” Smith said. “They may be going full Trump stylistically, but I’m not sure it will hurt DeWine as much. The race, for DeWine, is going to come down to a very basic question: Will his experience be a strength or a weakness. If it were a normal year, I’d say a strength.”
DeWine chose to make his campaign announcement during the DeWine Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Social, an annual event at his historic Cedarville homestead in southwest Ohio. Thousands attended the event, a mainstay of summer politics in Ohio.
DeWine said he wants to use the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to assure every Ohio child has the chance to achieve their potential — including through quality education, the prospects of a good living and freedom from the state’s scourge of opioid addiction and death.
“We have an obligation to rescue Ohio’s sons and daughters of addiction,” he said, adding, “Their pain is real, their suffering is unimaginable.”
DeWine choked up when speaking of the 1993 death of his daughter, Becky, in a traffic accident. He said losing a child causes a parent to make the most of every day. He pledged to call it as he sees it and to “make the tough decisions.”
“My promise to you is as governor of this state, I will not waste a day, I will remember that time is precious and finite,” he said. “And when I walk into that Governor’s Office, I will be ready to go on Day One. I will walk through that door with a plan and I will be ready to get to work.”
Besides Husted and Renacci, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor is also contemplating a run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year. Republican Gov. John Kasich has said if she gets in, he’ll back his lieutenant of seven years. Kasich, a 2016 presidential contender, has positioned himself as one of the president’s most vocal critics. He declined to endorse, appear with or endorse Trump during the campaign — and even boycotted the Republican National Convention in his own state because of his concerns about a style in Trump that Kasich saw as negative, demoralizing and unprofessional.
Trump swiftly took control of the Ohio Republican Party after the election, maneuvering to oust Kasich’s hand-picked leadership. The party now finds itself with a potentially contentious primary ahead. Husted, like DeWine, has about $2.5 million in the bank and shares the DeWine advantage of a high-profile statewide office as a bully pulpit.
But Smith said “career politician” labels are erased when you put DeWine up against Husted. “It’s hard to say Husted will represent some sort of radical change, since he’s a career politician as well,” he said. Age may be more of a factor in that face-off, Smith said, with Husted more than 20 years DeWine’s junior.
DeWine has spent the past seven years as attorney general almost continually in the spotlight. He’s employed the position of Ohio’s top cop to take on human traffickers, heroin dealers and, most recently the pharmaceutical industry.
In his speech Sunday, he said the courage to tackle the next decade can be found in Ohio’s long history of entrepreneurial drive and unstoppable spirit.
“We grow things, we make things, and we know how to sell things,” said DeWine, standing on the porch of his flag-bedecked home amid the cornfields of rural Greene County.