Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: What Is Mike DeWine Thinking?

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on the state's preparedness and education efforts to limit the potential spread of coronavirus.
Tony Dejak
In this Feb. 27, 2020, photo, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on the state's preparedness and education efforts to limit the potential spread of coronavirus.

It boggles the mind.

How did Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, in the space of little more than a year, go from being a forceful voice and uncompromising leader in the national war on the pandemic to a toothless politician seemingly afraid of his own shadow as new cases of the coronavirus soar and the ICU beds of Ohio's hospitals begin to fill once again?

The answer is simple: because much of his political party – the Republican Party – turned on him.

The anti-vaxxers. The Trump acolytes. The so-called free market conservatives who don't believe a private business or a public institution should be able to require masks be worn in their facilities to help stop the spread of the delta variant.

And, most of all, the Republican majority in the Ohio General Assembly, both House and Senate, who have been busily stripping DeWine of the executive authority he used freely in the first half of 2020 to break the spread of COVID-19.

It has left the governor – who says he is running for reelection, at the age of 75 – frustrated at every turn. And, most likely, impotent in the face of some deadly serious challenges.

He certainly sounded that way last week when WVXU's Tana Weingartner caught up with him at a visit to a Bond Hill manufacturing plant.

In a media scrum with reporters, DeWine insisted that vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic. He talked about the number of new cases soaring as students are returning to school all over Ohio. And he admitted he is powerless now even to mandate masks be worn in schools.

"I made the decision not to do that,'' DeWine said. "As you know, the law provides that if the state legislature does not like a health order, they can repeal it - get rid of it - instantly.

"If I were to mandate that, we also have the challenge that we have a number of schools that in all likelihood are just simply going to ignore it," he said.

Can you imagine, in the spring and early summer of 2020, the governor of Ohio making a statement like that?

All of this comes at a time when Ohio's COVID-19 cases have hit their highest level in seven months.

And the Ohio General Assembly – a body chock full of Trumpist, small town and suburban anti-vaxxers – has effectively given itself veto power over any pandemic mandate DeWine would issue.

"The legislature has effectively made themselves into the executive branch,'' said David Niven, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. "And they have done this to a governor of their own party. There's no imagining how far they might have gone had there been a Democrat in the governor's office."

DeWine's handling of the COVID crisis in 2020, Niven said, "could have been the celebratory cap to a largely successful 50-year career in politics. Now it's not clear what the end will be for Mike DeWine."

It is not just the Ohio legislature that is on DeWine's back. He also has GOP challengers in the May 2022 primary – former congressman Jim Renacci, a Trump acolyte who ran a strong U.S. Senate campaign in 2018 but lost to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown; and Joe Blystone, a political newcomer and rancher from East Liverpool, who out-Trumps even Renacci.

Renacci, a Medina County Republican, has been waging a hard-edged Twitter campaign against DeWine for well over a year, although he didn't formally enter the race until June.

On Aug. 6, he addressed this missive to DeWine, after the governor said in a media briefing that there are "two Ohios – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated."

"There are two Ohios. The ones who want freedom and those who will sit back and let them all be taken away," Renacci wrote. "We are the first group. There are more of us than there are of you. See you May 3."

May 3, of course, is the date of next year's Ohio primary election.

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor at the University of Dayton and the Democratic mayor of Wyoming, said he never was a great fan of DeWine, but said he was impressed by what the Republican governor did during the early months of the pandemic. He has deep reservations about DeWine now.

"It seems as if he is now saying, 'I'm going to put partisan politics above the health and welfare of 12 million Ohioans,' " Hoffmeister said. "He seems to have his eyes in the primary and not on the ICU units."

Mack Mariani, a professor of political science at Xavier University, doesn't believe the outlook is as grim for DeWine as many people think.

"Weirdly, I think the (Republican) party did him a favor,'' Mariani said. "He can point to what the legislature has done and claim the reasonable middle ground.

"What he has to worry about is not riling up the base to the point that they won't support him in a primary,'' Mariani said. "But he can always make the argument that he can only do what the law allows."

Still, at some point between now and the official filing deadline for candidates in early February, DeWine could decide that a second term is not in the cards for him and that he can end his career on a positive note.

"He can simply walk away,'' Niven said. "Whether or not he does that depends on the situation then and what his thinking is as the deadline approaches. And it is hard to get inside his head."

If only we could.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.