Editorial: Gov. DeWine should debate

A recent editorial by the Elyria Chronicle-Telegraph:

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is doing a disservice to voters by refusing to debate his Republican primary opponents.

The Ohio Debate Commission said Thursday that DeWine’s campaign had notified it that he wouldn’t participate March 29 in the debate.

“Mike DeWine is the most publicly accessible governor in Ohio history,” DeWine campaign manager Brenton Temple told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Gov. DeWine meets with constituents on a daily basis and regularly takes questions from the media. Ohioans know where he stands on the issues and that he is fighting and winning for them.”

If that’s the case, then DeWine should have no problem putting in an appearance to tout his record and answer a few more questions.

If he doesn’t, the debate will be defined by those candidates who do show up. Former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and farmer Joe Blystone had already agreed to appear. The commission was still trying to get in touch with a fourth candidate, former state Rep. Ron Hood. Hood, too, should appear.

DeWine is a conservative, but the other candidates have staked out positions to his right, especially when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although DeWine certainly made missteps during the pandemic, his performance, particularly in the early days, is one he should be proud to defend.

He was one of the first governors of either party to recognize the danger the coronavirus posed and take concrete steps to address it. He followed the science, closed schools and nonessential businesses, mandated masks (eventually), imposed a curfew and promoted vaccines.

It’s easy to forget how forthright and reassuring he and then-Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton were in their daily news conferences, which were dubbed “Wine with DeWine.”

Yet to hear his opponents tell it, he was a dictator who trampled on freedom.

Had DeWine not taken the steps that he did, Ohio’s death toll from the virus likely would have been far higher than it has been. There is no higher responsibility for a political leader than to protect the public. DeWine did that in the face of stiff opposition from many in his party. He should say so.

Renacci spokesman Tom Weyand said voters deserved to hear from the governor.

“This is a DeWine versus Renacci race and the governor should be on stage and be asked the tough questions Ohioans want to know the answers to,” he told the Enquirer.

Although we agree about DeWine’s obligation to face the questions, a recent Fox News poll showed that Renacci may not be the main threat to the governor’s chances to win his party’s nomination.

The poll, released Tuesday, had DeWine in a commanding lead with 50 percent of likely GOP primary voters saying they’d support him. Blystone came in second with 21 percent, while Renacci had 18 percent.

It also showed that 63 percent of respondents had either a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of DeWine. By way of comparison, 78 percent had favorable views of former President Donald Trump and 55 percent had favorable views of retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati.

If DeWine can hold those numbers and Blystone and Renacci split the anti-incumbent vote, he’ll be well-positioned to win the primary.

He would then face off in the general election with either Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley or former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, the two Democratic candidates in the race. They both have agreed to participate in a debate.

It’s not all that unusual for a frontrunner to avoid debates. DeWine, for instance, refused to debate then-Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor four years ago, although they did go head-to-head in a Plain Dealer editorial board meeting.

If you’re running ahead in the polls, the thinking seems to go, why risk elevating your opponents to equal stature by appearing on the same stage? Why take the chance that you’ll stumble or they’ll turn in a great performance?

By that logic it might make strategic sense to skip debates, but doing so still robs voters of a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side. It also can backfire for the candidate by making him appear afraid to answer hard questions.

The other reason to debate is that it shows respect for voters and democracy.

No candidate is so good that voters wouldn’t benefit from seeing him of her challenged at the polls and in a debate.

— Elyria Chronicle-Telegraph, March 11