Wilkin-Ellis: Direct mail, negative campaigning, and Mr. Wilkin goes to Columbus

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

As much as Shane Wilkin and Beth Ellis probably felt like they personally knew a lot of voters in their respective counties of Highland and Clinton, in reality they only knew a fraction of them, not to mention the voters they didn’t know at all in Pike and the parts of Ross County that are included in the 91st Ohio House District.

Given that fact, what most of the 10,564 voters who cast ballots in the race learned about Shane and Beth is what came in their mailboxes in the form of campaign flyers, so many that residents could wallpaper entire rooms and still have enough left over to wrap all their Christmas presents. Based on those flyers, here’s what voters learned about the candidates.

• Shane almost always wears camouflage and carries a rifle or shotgun. Beth wears camouflage and carries a rifle or shotgun quite a bit, but maybe not as often as Shane. Shane will be easy to pick out in the state legislature in Columbus, because he’ll be the one wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle or shotgun.

• Both candidates are pro-life and were endorsed by Ohio Right to Life.

• Both candidates love President Trump and, by implication, President Trump loves them.

• Beth is a chameleon, in that some days she looks like a puppet, other days a robot. Sometimes she wears a racing suit, and other days she smokes cigars with Cliff Rosenberger.

Those last pieces of disinformation came courtesy of campaign flyers from an independent expenditure group calling itself the Growth & Opportunity PAC, which blanketed the district with attacks on Beth entirely based on linking her to Cliff, the former speaker of the Ohio House who previously represented the district and had endorsed Beth before his resignation under a cloud.

I’m not opposed to “negative” campaigns. In fact, I’m all for them when they’re based on legitimate information. For example, someone with a voting record in public office, or engaged in controversial business actions, or who has had other questionable experiences are ripe for negative “spin” to legitimately be considered by voters. Candidates aren’t going to criticize themselves.

But the kind of campaign that was run against Beth by the Growth & Opportunity PAC is what gives negative campaigns a bad name. None of the flyers had any actual negative information about Beth herself. All the insinuations were about Cliff, and Beth was accused of guilt by association.

To his credit, Shane denounced those flyers and said bluntly at a candidate forum, “Quite frankly, it sucks.” In fact, I have no doubt that Shane sincerely wishes those flyers had not been sent, because he felt he was winning anyway and he’d like his impressive victory to be entirely credited to his own campaign efforts.

But they almost certainly contributed to the final result. Voters heard nothing but positives from the candidates’ own materials, so the only negatives that blanketed the district were about Beth. That’s a one-sided fight with a predictable result.

Beth — who proved herself a knowledgeable and well-spoken candidate — was adamant that she would not do any negative campaigning against Shane, which was admirable except for the fact that a negative campaign was being waged against her, at which point she had to fight fire with fire. And with 10 years in public office and countless decisions made as a county commissioner, there was plenty of fodder to be used against Shane by a clever strategist.

I spoke with Beth Monday and asked if she had any regrets about not sending literature questioning some of Shane’s decisions as commissioner or some events that happened during his tenure. She paused a long time before answering, and when she answered the impression I got was maybe, maybe not.

What got to her the most was the impact the negative flyers had on her children in school. Her daughter asked her one day, “Do we really have a condo in Columbus?” No, Cliff did, but a Growth & Opportunity PAC flyer made it appear that the allegation was against Beth, unless you read the fine print very closely. Beth said that the last three weeks of the campaign were tough because voters began to react to her differently as they were exposed to the flyers and were clearly transmitting the allegations against Cliff onto her.

“There’s no way to combat that,” she said.

From Shane’s viewpoint, he won a race in which he was considerably outspent when you include the thousands expended on Beth’s behalf by the Ohio Republican Organizational Committee (OHROC), although we won’t know final numbers until the post-primary reports are filed mid-June. But even though he had nothing to do with the Growth & Opportunity PAC, the thousands it spent on anti-Beth mailings helped level the playing field, spending-wise.

Overall, I think Shane won because voters decided that his experience and overall excellent record as a county commissioner made him a good choice to serve in the statehouse. I think he would have won without the outside group’s negative flyers against Beth, but there is no doubt they contributed to the final margin, with Shane garnering 56 percent of the vote district-wide.

I wrote several months ago that I admired Shane for getting into a race where his primary opponent already had the endorsement of the speaker of the House – before the roof caved in on Cliff – and the backing of OHROC, controlled then by Cliff. I still admire that decision, even if Shane knew there would be help coming from forces aligned with State Rep. Larry Householder, who hopes to be speaker again.

Shane’s experience observing the state’s efforts to solve its financial woes on the backs of local governments will give him the knowledge and determination to oppose such formulas. He’ll be an advocate for the people and local governments of the 91st District. He is well equipped to hit the ground running.

Locally, the Highland County Board of Commissioners will miss him and his leadership, and the choice of Shane’s replacement there is important – and fodder for another day.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.


By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]