COLUMBUS — Just three years ago, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, stood side by side, promising to push together for gun control proposals after a gunman killed nine people and wounded more than two dozen in the city’s nightclub district. It was a short-lived pledge.
Allies then, DeWine and Whaley are now facing each other in a partisan governor’s race defined by events that neither could have predicted at the time: the coronavirus pandemic and a U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
They no longer see eye-to-eye on guns either. Their gun control proposals never came about, and since the Dayton mass shooting DeWine signed legislation loosening gun restrictions — including a so-called stand your ground bill eliminating the duty to retreat before using force and another making concealed weapons permits optional for those legally allowed to carry a weapon.
“The politics got hard and Mike DeWine folded,” Whaley said this year.
Both candidates survived contested primaries to face each other in November. DeWine overcame two far-right opponents who criticized him for his aggressive decisions early in the pandemic, including a business shut-down order and a statewide mask mandate. Despite more than four decades in Ohio politics, DeWine failed to secure 50% of the primary vote.
Whaley easily defeated former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley and is now trying to regain a seat last won by Democrats 16 years ago.
Since the primary, Whaley has hammered DeWine for signing those gun bills and for his anti-abortion positions, including his 2019 signing into law of Ohio’s anti-abortion “ fetal heartbeat bills.”
But despite criticism that DeWine took from members of his own party over his approach to the coronavirus and Democratic furor over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, most polls show DeWine comfortably ahead. Ultimately, that still comes down to DeWine’s long years in Ohio politics, said Tom Sutton, a political science professor at Baldwin-Wallace University.
Sutton noted that a September Marist poll found that 42% of adults statewide had either never heard of Whaley — who also ran briefly for governor in 2018 — or didn’t know how to rate her. Meanwhile, DeWine has previously won statewide races for lieutenant governor, U.S. senator, attorney general and governor.
“The simple answer is experience and name recognition vs. relative newcomer,” Sutton said. “I think that overrides the issues we thought might make this a closer race, in particular the issue of abortion.”
Whaley could benefit from increased Democratic and independent voter turnout for the tight U.S. Senate race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, but likely not enough to turn the tide, Sutton said.
DeWine is also aided by incumbency, which in the past year has included two giant economic development wins for Ohio: a $20 billion investment in central Ohio by chip maker Intel, and Honda’s $3.5 billion joint-venture battery factory in southwestern Ohio. Both carry the promise of thousands of new jobs.
“We’re taking China head-on and bringing manufacturing jobs home to Ohio,” DeWine said in a September ad.
DeWine, 75, has generally portrayed himself above the campaign fray, which includes declining to debate Whaley. His campaign resisted attack ads against Whaley until last month, when it criticized her for supporting the American Rescue Plan Act in her role as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The ads fail to mention that DeWine promoted grants the state received through the pandemic relief measure.
The closest DeWine and Whaley came to a debate was an Oct. 6 event held by a children’s advocacy group where panelists separately quizzed each candidate on their positions on issues affecting kids.
In opening remarks and in his responses, DeWine never mentioned Whaley and focused on his efforts to ensure all children “live up to their God-given potential.”
By contrast, Whaley was less than a minute into her opening statement when she criticized support for children referenced by DeWine as election season talking points. She said: “He has failed to deliver for Ohio kids.”
Whaley, 46, has cast DeWine as a coward unwilling to defend his record in debates. She, the Ohio Democratic Party and an anti-DeWine PAC have been pounding the governor for weeks for not going head-to-head with Whaley.
Whaley said DeWine was afraid of debate questions about his role in a $60 million bribery scheme aimed at passing legislation to prop up Ohio’s two nuclear power plants; the controversy over a 10-year-old Ohio girl forced to seek an abortion in Indiana after being raped; and DeWine’s signing of a law allowing school districts to arm trained employees.
“If you’re a governor, you have a responsibility to talk directly to people about why you deserve a second term,” Whaley said.
DeWine has said Ohioans already know him and his positions well. Besides being one of the state’s most familiar politicians, he also spent months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic appearing in daily statewide broadcasts.