Ohio GOP governor aims to overcome party base anger

The school closures, stay-at-home mandates and curfews that Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine imposed at the start of the pandemic still infuriate Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters. His dismissal of the former president’s stolen election lie and criticism that Trump “poured gas on the fire” before the U.S. Capitol riot set him at odds with many GOP voters.

But that may not be enough to topple DeWine in the state’s next primary on May 3.

Despite some notable splits with Trump, he enters the campaign home stretch in a strong position to win the GOP nomination for another four-year term. He faces challenges from three lesser-known conservatives who could essentially divide far-right loyalists, with DeWine potentially emerging as a Republican who cut through Trump’s base and managed to survive.

“Anything that happens in elections happens, but it was a pivotal moment in our history,” DeWine, 75, said in an interview, referring to his handling of the pandemic.

The dynamic harkens back to a time when Ohio valued middle candidates, making it a beacon in presidential elections for decades. But that reputation for moderation eroded under Trump, who won the state in the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Ohio, as the contestants spent months trying to outdo each other as they sought his coveted endorsement.

So far, the former president has remained silent in the gubernatorial race, a credit to DeWine’s ability to walk a fine line in expressing his support for Trump while keeping him at arm’s length. Despite their different approach to the pandemic, which Trump has sought to downplay, there was only one hint of a real rift between the two men.

That’s when DeWine suggested in November 2020 that it was time for Trump to acknowledge that Joe Biden had won the White House. Trump’s response was a tweet asking who would challenge DeWine in this year’s primary. “Will be hotly contested! Trump predicted.

Former U.S. Representative Jim Renacci, who served four terms in Congress, was seen as DeWine’s biggest threat, especially if he could win Trump’s endorsement after winning his support four years ago at a a failed bid for the U.S. Senate. But some recent polls show Renacci split the anti-DeWine vote with Joe Blystone, a farmer who jumped into the race early and built a following in rural Ohio.

Much of the frustration with DeWine has boiled over in rural, Republican-dominated counties where mask mandates and school closures have met with resistance. These areas hold the fewest votes but carry significant weight as Republicans often rack up margins large enough to negate the strong Democratic turnout in the state’s major cities.

“They say that in politics, people forget things. Here they haven’t forgotten,” said Clermont County Republican Party member Dennis Cooper, who overwhelmingly backed Renacci over DeWine earlier this year. “It wasn’t just one thing. It was one thing over another that made no sense.

Still, DeWine has a huge fundraising edge and a network of supporters built from a political career spanning more than 40 years. Both are the reasons why more prominent Republicans in the state decided not to challenge him even as discontent grew.

Ryan Stubenrauch, a former political adviser to DeWine who is now a GOP consultant, thinks the anger comes from a vocal minority.

“There are a lot of people angry about a lot of things. The last two years have been really difficult for people,” he said. “I don’t know if the party has changed or if our whole policy has changed in the last two years.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, he says, is DeWine. “He values ​​life pretty much above anything else,” Stubenrauch said.

He is an old-school conservative who, just months into his first term as governor, enacted what was at the time one of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country.

DeWine drew on his pro-life stance to explain why this also includes protecting people from COVID-19. He was widely praised in early 2020 for not downplaying the pandemic when he became the first governor to close schools statewide.

But the mood soured among Republicans who quickly grew weary of mask mandates and health orders that shut down many small businesses but allowed big retailers to stay open. They saw him impose restrictions that went against what they heard from Trump and conservative governors such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota.

A hostile state legislature dominated by DeWine’s own party overruled its veto of a bill weakening the governor’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

Renacci said DeWine prioritized “fear over freedom.”

Some conservatives have vowed never to vote for DeWine again, according to a handful of county GOP chairs, even if it means sitting out in November.

The winner of the Republican primary will face the Democratic candidate, either the former mayor of Cincinnati, John Cranley, or the ex-mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley.

“They will no longer vote for someone who disappointed them and did not represent them well,” said Shelby County Republican Chair Theresa Kerg. “I think people are frustrated and tired of just accepting what’s given to them.”


Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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