Local Politics: 2018 governor's race shaping up to be a close call

William Hershey
Rep. Jim Renacci

There's nearly a year to go before the election, but candidates in next year's governor's race already are chugging down the campaign trail.

They could give voters something unusual: a close election.

Since 1958 — when the term for governor was extended from two to four years — most gubernatorial elections have not been.

The best example was 1994 when Republican incumbent George Voinovich set a 20th-century record with nearly 72 percent of the vote to just 25 percent for Democrat Rob Burch.

There have been squeakers, most notably 1974 when Republican Jim Rhodes went to bed thinking he lost but woke up a winner, defeating Democratic incumbent John Gilligan by fewer than 12,000 votes.

Republicans have won most of the time since 1958, with 10 victories, double the Democrats' five.

Republicans control practically everything in state government, but the right Democratic candidate could make it close this time.

First, no incumbent will be on the ballot. Republican John Kasich, the winner in 2010 and 2014, is term limited.

Second, in the first off-year election after a presidential election, the party that didn't win the White House often makes gains.

Third, Republican President Donald J. Trump is a wild card. Disapproval of how he runs the country could help Democrats.

To win, however, Democrats need a candidate. In the past, party leaders sometimes have all but begged somebody to enter the race.

This year, four credible Democratic candidates already are running: Connie Pillich from the Cincinnati area, a former state representative and the losing candidate for state treasurer in 2014; Betty Sutton, a former U.S. House and Ohio House member from the Akron area; Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley; and Ohio Senate Minority Leader Sen. Joe Schiavoni from the Youngstown area.

The problem for the Democrats is that none of these candidates has won a statewide election.

Three of the four Republican candidates have won statewide multiple times: Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor. This gives them a head start in name recognition and fundraising.

The fourth Republican, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, touts himself as a Trump-like “outsider.”

There's time for a Democrat with successful statewide experience to jump in. Richard Cordray, now director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is the best possibility. He's won elections for state treasurer and state attorney general.

Stay tuned.