Eight is Enough: The 2018 Ohio governor's race

Dan Williamson

The governor is the 187th highest-paid state employee in Ohio. Last year, 186 state workers—including the lieutenant governor, several members of the cabinet and even the deputy treasurer—made more money than the governor. The salary, at about $148,000, is certainly a livable one. But when the state economy is in the toilet, people look to the governor. Nobody blames the deputy treasurer.

Ohio's most exciting gubernatorial contest was probably in 1848, when Seabury Ford defeated John Weller by one-tenth of a percent, a margin of about 300 votes. These days, most Ohio governor's races are lopsided and forgettable. They are neither as ugly, nor as entertaining, as contests for U.S. Senate. That may be because they don't generate as much passion. Folks just don't get that worked up about a governor.

After all, it has largely been a dead-end job for the past 120 years. Ever since Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley were elected president in a two-decade span late in the 19th century, Americans have not seen fit to send a third Ohio governor to the White House. Even the vice presidency and the president's cabinet have been off-limits for Ohio governors during that time. Gov. Jim Cox won the Democratic nomination for president in 1920, but he was badly beaten by fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding, a senator.

Sure, they put up a statue for Jim Rhodes, but his successors haven't gotten the same level of respect. Fans of Dick Celeste and George Voinovich will tell you they were successful governors, but can anyone remember what they did? Voinovich's political legacy was forged in his prior job as mayor of Cleveland. For those old enough to remember the Celeste administration, his name conjures memories of a crude Republican bumper sticker slogan recited by schoolchildren throughout the 1980s.

It hasn't gotten any easier to make one's mark as governor. As is the case on the national level, politics at the Ohio Statehouse is more polarized than it was just a decade ago. Former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has fond memories of his early meetings with Republican legislative leaders after he became governor in 2007. Strickland would sit down with Jon Husted, who was speaker of the House, and Bill Harris, then-president of the Senate, to discuss their respective priorities and find ways to compromise. “I don't know if those kinds of interactions are possible today in Columbus,” Strickland says. “I think the polarization has resulted in an inability for those kinds of interactions to take place.”

Husted, now Ohio's secretary of state, says such exchanges might be possible, but agrees they are not likely. “I think it's tougher today than when I got into public office,” he says. “I think that things have become more institutionally partisan, where not only politicians, but interest groups and voters have picked teams. And you've got to always oppose the other team to be loyal to your team.”

And that's just the politics of things. The practical issues facing Ohioans today are daunting and without immediate solutions.

Under governors—and presidents—of both parties, Ohio's economy has seemed stuck in various stages of neutral. “A very sizable percent of working Ohioans have not had a real wage increase for three decades,” says Mike Curtin, the retired journalist, newspaper executive and state lawmaker. The impending loss of service and transportation jobs due to rapidly changing technology probably will exacerbate this challenge in the years to come.

Since 1994, when a Perry County judge ruled that Ohio's property tax-based education system was unconstitutional—a decision upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court—the state's education system has been a political football for candidates and elected leaders. Nearly everyone agrees public education in Ohio is not serving the needs of its children, nor fully preparing them for the jobs that will be available when they graduate. Yet it continues to plod forward under the burden of the same unconstitutional and discriminating funding mechanism.

The national epidemic of opioid addiction has hit Ohio harder than any other state. “According to last year's statistics, we're losing eight people a day. It clearly is higher than that this year,” says Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “It's different from any other epidemic we've ever faced because it's just everywhere.”

Republicans can blame Barack Obama, and Democrats can blame Gov. John Kasich and the state legislature, but the fact is, these are deep, structural problems that will not be solved by finger-pointing. They won't even be addressed by a tax cut or a new job-training program. They will persist, not because no one cares, but because nobody really knows what to do.

With Gov. Kasich's second term set to expire at the beginning of 2019, the job of managing those issues will soon be open to new applicants. It's a little surprising that anyone wants the job. And yet, no fewer than eight major candidates have declared their aspirations to guide Ohio into the next decade. The Republican candidates are DeWine, Husted, Congressman Jim Renacci and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor. The Democratic field includes former state Rep. Connie Pillich, Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, former Congresswoman Betty Sutton and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. With no clear frontrunner in either party, each candidate has at least a conceivable chance of victory.

And the line could still be growing, particularly on the Democratic side, which lacks a real name-brand contender. Rumors continue to circulate that Richard Cordray, the former Ohio treasurer and attorney general, will leave the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and make a late entry into the race. Former state Sen. Nina Turner, who lost to Husted in 2014, would add racial diversity to an all-white field. Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman and Cleveland mayor, is said to be considering a comeback. And some Democrats are eager to run their own Donald Trump—trash TV show host Jerry Springer, a former Cincinnati mayor who lives in Florida but could always move back home if his arm was twisted into re-entering the political arena.

Had the 2016 presidential election gone the way most people expected, next year would have followed a familiar formula: With Hillary Clinton in the White House, DeWine, Husted and Taylor—who have 12 statewide ballot appearances among them—would fight it out for the Republican nomination, and then the winner would steamroll whichever candidate was unfortunate enough to win the Democratic nomination. That scenario remains possible, and many think it's still likely. But the one thing we've learned about Ohio politics is that we don't really know anything about Ohio politics.

Historically, Ohio voters have been pretty boring. They've liked traditional, well-qualified establishment candidates, especially for executive offices. That tradition seemed well intact after Ohio's March primary election, when voters of each party made what seemed like the safe, responsible choices—Kasich for the Republicans and Clinton for the Democrats. But safe and boring went out the window in November when Trump won Ohio with a larger share of the vote than any presidential candidate since George Bush in 1988. Ohio's reputation as a national bellwether also took a serious hit when Trump won Ohio by more than 8 percentage points while losing the national popular vote by 2 percentage points.

Curtin, Ohio's unofficial political historian, saw something new and something old in the 2016 election results. By choosing Trump, a disaffected electorate expressed in an unprecedented way its disgust with conventional government and American institutions. But Ohio voters were also doing something they've done quite often since the state's inception—voting Republican. “Ohio's a Republican state,” Curtin says. “We've always been a Republican state.”

That assessment is at odds with Ohio's national reputation as America's political microcosm, a status that seemed cemented in 2004 when Ohio was the decisive state in George W. Bush's re-election. But in previous and subsequent presidential elections, Ohio has been a little more Republican than the rest of the country. Strickland says Ohio is “still a swing state, but Republicans have a slight advantage.”

In state politics, the advantage is more than slight. Republicans have won eight of the last 11 gubernatorial elections, including six of the past seven. Meanwhile, the dynamics between the parties have changed less than the dynamics within them. Whether in victory or defeat, politicians across the spectrum lament that both parties have become too insular. Whaley was disappointed that the 2016 Clinton campaign “focused in on the three Cs” of Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and never made it to her city or to less populated areas. “There has to be political infrastructure in these counties for you to win Ohio,” she says. “You can't lose these counties 80-20.”

“All politics has become more polarized,” says Matt Borges, the former Ohio Republican Party chair who was ousted in a Trump-backed coup earlier this year. Borges says Republican strategies have changed since he volunteered as a college student in 1990 for the Voinovich campaign. “He campaigned in inner-city Cleveland and went after votes in black churches, and I don't know that we really see our candidates do that anymore,” Borges says. “We've kind of gotten away from that, and that's unfortunate.”

Betty Montgomery, the former state attorney general and auditor, witnessed the transformation of Ohio Republican politics beginning with the emergence of the Christian right in the early 1990s. That morphed into what she describes as a “much more inward-looking” perspective fueled by conservative media. “I was surprised in the '90s when I started hearing people in upper-crust Perrysburg start to talk about this radio personality called Rush Limbaugh,” she recalls. “You saw people coalesce around these radio personalities that were antagonistic and went beyond social conservatism.”

And so, more than two decades later, you get President Trump. Candidates on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure out what this means for them. Democrats wonder if his decisive 2016 Ohio victory represents a harsh new reality to which they must adapt. Republicans wonder if his divisive presidency will turn Ohio voters against their party next year. “Trump is a disrupter and is an unpredictable part of this election cycle,” Montgomery says. That's why scenarios that would have been unthinkable a year ago—a victory by Renacci, who has parroted Trump's themes, or the election of a little-known Democrat—could now be entirely plausible.

Borges knows how quickly politics can shift. Republicans' rapid plunge from the giddy heights of 2004 is still fresh in his mind. A scandal-plagued government on the state level, coupled with an increasingly unpopular president on the national level, resulted in an election that handed four of the five statewide offices to the Democrats. “In 2005, nobody knew the situation we were going to be walking into in 2006,” he says. “The earth moved under our feet.” The degree to which the earth will move under our feet next year remains to be seen, which means the fates of the 2018 candidates is, to some degree, at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

And yet, they must begin the slog throughout a large and philosophically diverse state, so that should the political climate turn out to be favorable to them, they will be in a position to take advantage. Strickland, who has run for statewide office three times in the past 11 years, says campaigning in Ohio is different than in other Midwestern states, which are anchored by just one large city. “It's difficult to have a message that's attractive to the different constituencies,” he says. “We have the most liberal of the liberals and the most conservative of the conservatives.”

Montgomery recalls being asked after her first election as attorney general in 1994 to speak about what she had learned from her statewide campaign: “I said that I learned that Cincinnati doesn't think it's part of Ohio, Cleveland doesn't care if it's part of Ohio, Toledo doesn't want to be part of Ohio, and Columbus thinks it is Ohio.”

Ten months from now, somebody will navigate all of this political uncertainty and become Ohio's 70th governor. Then the hard part will begin. Perhaps old ideologies will be set aside, new approaches will be embraced, and the formidable economic, social and political challenges that have stymied Ohio will be solved. That's probably naïve. But if it does happen, the next governor should get a statue. Or at least a raise.

Mike DeWine

Mike DeWine (Republican)

Résumé: Two-term Ohio attorney general, former U.S. senator, former lieutenant governor, former U.S. congressman, former Ohio state senator, former Greene County prosecutor

Favorite Ohio Governor: George Voinovich, under whom DeWine served as lieutenant governor. “I'm biased.”

Signature Issue: A proactive, comprehensive approach to Ohio's opiate epidemic

Case for His Candidacy: “My experience in government, especially the last six and a half years as attorney general, have prepared me like no one else to be the governor of this state.”

Path to the Nomination: DeWine benefits from his status as the best-known candidate; Republicans positively respond both to his experience and his passion to address the drug crisis.

Fun Fact: DeWine was one of only four Republican senators to support the 2000 presidential campaign of their colleague, John McCain, who was running against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Rick Moranis

In His Own Words: “For six-and-a-half years, I've looked at a lot of problems in Ohio, and, quite candidly, as the attorney general, there's only so much I can do. I am eager to become governor and tackle these problems from the front end.”

Jon Husted

Jon Husted (Republican)

Résumé: Two-term Ohio secretary of state, former Ohio state senator, former member of Ohio House of Representatives, including four years as speaker

Favorite Ohio Governor: Salmon P. Chase. “The Ohio governor I have the best personal relationship with is Bob Taft. A governor I admire greatly is George Voinovich. But if you've ever read ‘Team of Rivals,' you can learn about Salmon P. Chase.”

Signature Issue: Transforming Ohio's economy and workforce to adapt to the challenges posed by automation and other technological advances

Case for His Candidacy: “We honor the past, but the past is the past. We've got to move on to the future. We can't keep doing things the same old way and expecting different results, and I represent a new generation of Republican leadership that can lead our state to a more prosperous future.”

Path to the Nomination: Soured on political polarization, Republican voters see in Husted an accomplished pragmatist who could take a fresh approach to the state's economic challenges.

Fun Fact: Husted is considered one of the best football players in the University of Dayton's history.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Matt Damon

In His Own Words: “The pace of change that's going to face us economically, socially and culturally over the next decade is going to be as fast and as potentially life-altering as any decade we've ever experienced.”

Connie Pillich

Connie Pillich (Democrat)

Résumé: Former Ohio state representative, former Air Force captain, founding partner of Webb & Pillich attorneys (now Fee Law Group)

Favorite Ohio Governor: “That is not fair because I know at least two Democratic governors, and I like them both.”

Signature Issue: Focusing on jobs by supporting education, infrastructure, technology, businesses and innovation

Case for Her Candidacy: “My brand of leadership is military leadership. It's very common-sense. It's very mission-oriented. It doesn't get bogged down in partisan grandstanding.”

Path to the Nomination: Pillich benefits from higher name recognition from her 2014 statewide campaign, and voters respond to her blend of military and political experience.

Fun Fact: Though she lost the 2014 Ohio treasurer's race to Josh Mandel, she outperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Gillian Anderson

In Her Own Words: “After they closed the steel mill where he worked, my dad had to reinvent himself when he was in his 50s. It was very hard on my family. These families worrying about having to put food on the table, I know what they're going through.”

Jim Renacci

Jim Renacci (Republican)

Résumé: Four-term U.S. congressman for Ohio's 16th District in northeast Ohio, CEO of LTC Companies Group, former mayor and city council member of Wadsworth

Favorite Ohio Governor: “I don't have anyone in particular.”

Signature Issue: Addressing job growth through fewer regulations and lower taxes

Case for His Candidacy: “There's no shortage of career politicians running for governor today. I'm the only person who's created a job. I'm the only person who's employed over 3,000 people.”

Path to the Nomination: Still-supportive Trump voters make a strong showing in the primary, and reject the establishment pedigrees of Renacci's three Republican challengers.

Fun Fact: Renacci was co-owner of the Columbus Destroyers, which put up an overall team record of 29–55 in the now-defunct Arena Football League.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Tim Allen

In His Own Words: “Accomplishment ID will trump name ID every day.”

Joe Schiavoni

Joe Schiavoni (Democrat)

Résumé: Two-term Ohio state senator from Northeast Ohio

Favorite Ohio Governor: Ted Strickland. “Here's the thing: I only know two. Ted Strickland and John Kasich are the two Ohio governors I know.”

Signature Issue: Increasing employment by investing in job training

Case for His Candidacy: “I got put into this job when I was 29, and I don't go around acting like I have all the answers to all the problems. What I will do is go out and listen to people and learn their issues.”

Path to the Nomination: Schiavoni capitalizes on his Capitol Square connections to raise campaign money, and Democratic voters are attracted to his relative youth and authenticity.

Fun Fact: Like his father and his three younger brothers after him, Schiavoni was a Golden Gloves boxer at Boardman High School in Youngstown.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Rob Corddry

In His Own Words: “The House and the Senate are not going to flip Democrat even if I win, so I'm going to have to keep building relationships with the other side.”

Betty Sutton

Betty Sutton (Democrat)

Résumé: Former administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, former U.S. congresswoman, former Ohio state representative, former

Summit County Councilmember, former Barberton City Councilmember

Favorite Ohio Governor: Dick Celeste

Signature Issue: Restoring economic prosperity for working-class people

Case for Her Candidacy: “We need new leadership and vision for Ohio, and I know it matters where you aim policies. If polices are aimed at benefiting only those at the top, then only those at the top will benefit.”

Path to the Nomination: Sutton draws upon her past electoral success in Northeast Ohio, which historically has been Ohio Democrats' geographic base, and delivers a message that resonates with blue-collar Democrats.

Fun Fact: According to Sutton, she is the only Democratic woman in Ohio history to serve as an elected official at the municipal, county, state and federal levels.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Joan Allen

In Her Own Words: “Sometimes politicians forget and fail to reach out to people where they are with respect and dignity. I'm not going to make that mistake.”

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor (Republican)

Résumé: Second-term Ohio lieutenant governor, former Ohio auditor, former Ohio state representative

Favorite Ohio Governor: John Kasich. “Because I have personally served with John Kasich, that gives me a perspective that not everybody gets to see.”

Signature Issue: Creating a strong job-creation environment through comprehensive regulatory reform and addressing opioid addiction

Case for Her Candidacy: “I challenge the status quo wherever I am. I don't accept ‘no' for an answer, and I don't accept that this is the way we've always done it, so that's the way we're going to do it.”

Path to the Nomination: Taylor establishes herself as the most conservative of the three establishment Republicans while benefiting from the support of Kasich and his political network.

Fun Fact: Taylor is Ohio's longest-serving lieutenant governor since John William Brown completed his 16th year in the job in 1975.

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Marissa Tomei

In Her Own Words: “The willingness to accept multigenerational poverty in Ohio is unacceptable to me.”

Nan Whaley

Nan Whaley (Democrat)

Résumé: First-term mayor of Dayton (running unopposed for a second term in November), former Dayton City Commissioner, former Montgomery Board of Elections board member, former Montgomery County deputy auditor

Favorite Ohio Governor: Jim Cox. “He ran for president with FDR. You can't beat that—FDR was his VP.”

Signature Issue: Investing in local communities to create jobs

Case for Her Candidacy: “I'm a mayor. They don't want someone coming from D.C. or coming from the Statehouse, where all of these problems have been started. I think they want somebody who has been getting it done.”

Path to the Nomination: Whaley's charismatic personality connects with voters, and she successfully sells her local government experience.

Fun Fact: Although Whaley is a University of Dayton alumnus and sports fan, she never rooted for former UD football star Jon Husted. “No, he's older than me. I don't think that he likes that.”

Will Be Played in the Movies By: Amy Schumer

In Her Own Words: “This is a change-versus-status quo race, and I think there's nothing more different, nothing more ‘change,' than a woman mayor from Dayton, Ohio, to be the next governor of Ohio.”