Analysis: Why a politician's choice of running mate is more symbolism than substance
On some days, the biggest news story in politics can turn out to be the least significant in the long run.
Wednesday may have been one of those days in Ohio politics.
That was the day that both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley and former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, announced in dueling press conferences their choices for their lieutenant governor running mates.
Whaley picked Cheryl Stephens, vice president of the Cuyahoga County Council and former mayor of Cleveland Heights, forming the first all-female ticket in Ohio political history.
Cranley chose a long-time feminist leader in the Ohio Statehouse, State Sen. Teresa Fedor of Toledo, a city where there are plenty of Democratic primary votes to be had.
And then most of Ohio rolled over in bed and went back to sleep.
The question today is this: Does it matter who a candidate for governor picks for his or her running mate? Does it make a difference in terms of primary or general election votes?
There's little evidence to suggest that it does.
Prior to 1978, Ohio's governor and lieutenant governor were elected in separate races. And, occasionally, it would result in the governor being from one party and the lieutenant governor being from another.
That happened in 1974, the last year the offices were elected separately.
Republican Jim Rhodes – a certified good-ol'-boy pol from Jackson County, in the heart of Appalachia – had spent two terms as Ohio's governor in the 1960s and was trying to make a comeback against the incumbent Democratic governor, John Gilligan of Cincinnati, who was being talked about as a potential presidential candidate in 1976.
Well, Rhodes fooled all the pundits by pulling off a win in the closest gubernatorial election in Ohio history – less than one vote per precinct.
At the same time, Dick Celeste, a young up-and-coming Democrat from the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, was running for lieutenant governor against a Republican incumbent. Celeste won, but he had hoped he'd be serving with Gilligan, who would have set him up for a run for governor in 1978. Instead, he was stuck with Rhodes, and had nothing to do but plot his own campaign for governor – which he lost to Rhodes in 1978 but won in 1982 when Rhodes was term-limited out.
It was a pretty awful system, one that created political mismatches like Rhodes-Celeste in 1974. Better that a candidate for governor, Republican or Democratic, run with a lieutenant governor candidate of his or her own choosing.
For the most part, the lieutenant governors who have served in that office since 1978 have been given duties by the governor in an area where he or she has a particular interest. Occasionally, they have been put in charge of a department of state government.
But do those running mates really help a gubernatorial candidate get elected?
In most cases, I think, the choice of a running mate is more symbolism than substance.
We know how the current governor, Republican Mike DeWine, got his lieutenant governor, Jon Husted. Husted was a rival to DeWine for the 2018 gubernatorial nomination when he decided to abandon his campaign and join forces with DeWine, bringing a boatload of campaign dollars with him. Instant running mate. Money talks.
The Democratic candidates' choices are far more interesting.
Fedor, Cranley's choice for a running mate, has been a leader on the Democratic side of the aisle in the legislature for a long time, on issues such as combatting human trafficking, as an advocate for abortion rights, an opponent of school vouchers and a host of issues that are particularly important to progressive Democratic women.
Those women make up a significant chunk of the Democratic primary vote in Ohio; and Cranley knows that he needs to peel away as many as possible from Whaley, his erstwhile friend and political ally. Progressive Democratic women voters may not know much about John Cranley but they do known about Teresa Fedor.
Whaley's choice of Stephens is loaded with symbolism, too.
Stephens is African American; and given the importance of Black voters in a Democratic primary – particularly Black voters in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area – it makes perfect sense to have a Black politician familiar to those voters on the ticket.
The pairing of Whaley and Stephens marks the first time that one of the major parties has had an all-female ticket running for governor and lieutenant governor.
Ohio is one of a dwindling number of states that has not elected a woman as governor. In fact, the state has never had a woman as a major party nominee for governor.
Four women, though, have served as lieutenant governor – all of them Republicans. (You get extra points if you can name them.)
One of the odd quirks of Ohio politics is that Ohio has had a woman as governor – but only for 11 days.
Nancy Hollister of Marietta – whose ancestor, Rufus Putnam, was one of the founders of the Northwest Territory – was Gov. George Voinovich's lieutenant governor during his second term. But in 1998, the governor was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Voinovich resigned as governor on Dec. 31, 1998, to prepare for taking over the Senate seat. That made Hollister, a former mayor of Marietta, Ohio's 66th governor until January 11, 1999, when Republican Bob Taft of Cincinnati, who won the 1998 gubernatorial race, was sworn in as the 67th Ohio governor.
Ohio's been around as a state for nearly 219 years. It has had a woman as governor for 11 days.
Someday that will change. Whether or not Whaley is the one who breaks through the glass ceiling remains to be seen. But sooner or later, a woman will sit in the Ohio governor's office.
But if Whaley does become the first woman elected governor, it probably won't be because of her choice for running mate, with all due respect to Cheryl Stephens.
And if Cranley becomes the 70th male governor of Ohio, Teresa Fedor won’t get the credit.
This 2022 race will be the 13th Ohio gubernatorial campaign I have covered. I don't recall one where I thought a lieutenant governor running mate made the difference in the outcome.
The running mates can help around the edges, gearing their campaigning to specific groups of voters, whether that be progressive women, African Americans, or some other piece of the Democratic coalition.
But, in the end, most voters cast their votes for the name on top, not the second banana on the ballot. That goes for both Democrats and Republicans.
The running mates may well be the gubernatorial candidates themselves somewhere down the line. We are reasonably sure that is exactly what Jon Husted is hoping for.
But, in the meantime, they should go about their business and take the guiding principle of physicians to heart:
First, do no harm.