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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: Candidate Mike DeWine's primary challenges may be a blessing in disguise

mike dewine
Tony Dejak

The bad news for Republican candidate Mike DeWine as he seeks a second term as Ohio governor is that he is being chased in the May primary by three ardent Trump acolytes for the GOP nomination.

The good news for Mike DeWine is that he is being chased in the May primary by three ardent Trump acolytes for the GOP nomination.

Weird, but true.

No incumbent likes to fight primary election battles within his or her own political party, but those are the cards that DeWine has been dealt and he appears ready to play them.

DeWine is as about as savvy a politician as there is in Ohio, having weathered many a storm in his career.

He's 75 years old now, and it seems like he has been around in Ohio politics for at least that long — as Greene County prosecutor; as a state senator; as a member of the U.S. House; as lieutenant governor; as a U.S. Senator; as Ohio attorney general and now as governor.

DeWine has won many elections and lost a few, too (just ask Democrat Sherrod Brown, who up-ended him in 2006 and took away his U.S. Senate seat).

He is a feisty fellow — a bantamweight champion political fighter — and there is no way he would find it acceptable to end a 50-year career in politics with a loss in a Republican primary.

DeWine's primary opponents are all true-blue Trumpites, who bow before their fearless leader on a daily basis — former congressman Jim Renacci, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012 and lost; a semi-cult figure in central Ohio farmer Joe Blystone; and, as of this week, former state representative Ron Hood, a self-proclaimed "Forever Trumper" from the tiny Pickaway County village of Ashville.

There's no question that Trump voters are the biggest factor in any Republican primary in Ohio. After all, he won the state in two presidential elections, by identical 8 percentage point margins.

Trump hasn't endorsed in this race — not yet anyway — although he was very upset with DeWine a year ago when the Ohio governor had the nerve to say that Joe Biden was elected president. Shocking! Stop the presses! Joe Biden is president?! Well, I'll be.

But Trump's success in Ohio makes it understandable that the three challengers are tripping over each other to claim the title of Trumpiest Candidate.

Putting Trump aside for the moment, the fact is that money talks in politics.

And when it comes to money, DeWine has them all beat — Republican challengers and Democrats who want his job alike.

The GOP challengers, particularly Renacci, are pounding DeWine daily on his response to the pandemic (they think he acted like a dictator with his mandates early on), accusing him of being in favor of the teaching of "critical race theory" in Ohio's K-12 schools (he's apparently not), among other alleged transgressions.

Critical race theory is one of those "straw man" issues that conservatives like to prop up and knock down, while thumping their chests and proclaiming themselves the saviors of Ohio's children. All of this despite the fact that critical race theory is not part of the curriculum in any K-12 school in Ohio.

But never let the facts get in the way of a good campaign gimmick.

DeWine's best hope of getting through this GOP primary is the fact that the Trump crowd's vote could end up being split three ways among Renacci, Blystone and Hood, allowing him to slip through with a plurality of Ohio Republican voters who are ready to move on from Trumpism, even though they voted for him twice.

And DeWine, a prodigious fundraiser, has the money that could make that happen.

Money matters

According to campaign finance reports filed Monday, he raised $3.3 million over the past six months and has an astonishing $9.2 million in the bank right now.

And that's not counting the large amounts of cash being spent by dark money groups to promote DeWine's candidacy.

Renacci, a very wealthy man from Medina County, made his personal fortune on various business ventures, including at one time owning nursing homes.

In this campaign, he's spending a chunk of his fortune and raising very little from outside sources, at least so far. Renacci has $4.1 million in the bank and has loaned his campaign $4.8 million so far.

Blystone has $314,447, according to the campaign finance report. Hood jumped into the race after the campaign finance reporting period so there's no information yet on his fundraising.

It is important to note one rule of politics here – money does not always buy happiness.

I've seen plenty of candidates over the years, both Republicans and Democrats, who were heavily outspent by their opponents but managed to win despite that disadvantage.

But if it is a choice between being the big dog and the underdog in fundraising, most politicians would choose "big dog" in a New York minute.

If DeWine can survive the primary, he'll face either former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley or former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley in the fall.

The two Democrats, of course, filed campaign finance reports, too. The reports show them pretty much even-steven in terms of campaign dollars — Cranley has about $130,000 more in the bank, but Whaley raised about $213,000 more over the six-month period.

Cranley has $1.9 million in the bank. Whaley has $1.77 million in her campaign fund.

Both are dwarfed by the motherlode that DeWine has amassed.

Somebody has to win that Democratic gubernatorial primary and either one of the two Democrats will likely never catch up with the Republican spending, especially if the candidate is DeWine.

A 'make-or-break' election cycle for Ohio Democrats

The Ohio Democratic Party has a lot riding on this year's election and they do not start from a position of strength, no matter who the GOP gubernatorial candidate will be. That is why the Ohio Democratic Party has been relentlessly hammering DeWine on "what he knew and when he knew it" in regards to the Larry Householder/House Bill 6 bribery case that will soon be heard in federal court.

So far, the governor has not responded to any of the Ohio Democratic Party's Freedom of Information Act requests on the subject of the House Bill 6 scandal.

John Hagner, Whaley's campaign manager, put out a "state of the primary" memo Thursday that laid out the challenges and advantages of running against DeWine this year.

"2022 could be a make-or-break election cycle for Ohio Democrats," Hagner wrote. "No one should underestimate the challenges we face: Ohio has become a tough state for Democrats, the first midterm of a Democratic Presidential term is always difficult, and Joe Biden’s polling numbers aren’t where anyone would prefer them to be.

"Nonetheless, we have a real opening," Hagner said. "Mike DeWine is the first incumbent Ohio Governor since the 1930s to face a primary challenge, and according to all the polling that’s been made public, it’s a primary he’s losing."

The only remaining question, though, is whether DeWine will be the one Whaley or Cranley will face in the November election.

If it’s DeWine, it will be a heavy lift for either Democrat. The good news for either Democratic candidate is that they have nine months to play catch-up.

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