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Politics
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: Independent Smitherman wants a GOP endorsement. If he gets it, will it even matter?

christopher smitherman
Tana Weingartner
/
WVXU
Christopher Smitherman at City Council's swearing-in ceremony in 2018.

What to do about Christopher Smitherman, the Independent candidate for Hamilton County commissioner?

That's the question on the table for the Hamilton County Republican Party as they eye the seat of incumbent Democratic Commissioner Stephanie Summerow Dumas and search desperately for a way to defeat her.

It's a tall task. This is a county that is increasingly Democratic blue; the window may be closing forever on Republicans' chances of winning significant victories in Hamilton County.

Christopher Smitherman might — might, mind you — be the one who can deliver the Hamilton County Republican Party to the promised land.

He is running to win, and, as he told me this week, "I plan to make history happen" by becoming the first African American male elected to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. Dumas, by the way, was the first African American elected, followed shortly thereafter by fellow Democrat Alicia Reece.

Many Republicans in Hamilton County have been hoping for a long time now that the former Cincinnati vice mayor — an Independent on City Council and as a county commission candidate — would just get it over with and declare himself a Republican and run with an "R" next to his name.

But for Smitherman, a fiercely independent former NAACP president who gets along famously with a lot of conservative Republicans, that would be too simple.

He would just as soon have his cake and eat it too.

Smitherman would welcome a Republican Party endorsement — an endorsement that would come after the May 3 partisan primary, when the county party's central committee meets. But he told me this week that even with a GOP endorsement, he wants to maintain his long-time stance as an Independent candidate.

"I'm seeking a variety of endorsements," Smitherman said. Among them, he said, would be the Hamilton County GOP.

But he said he's also looking for the endorsement of the Baptist Ministers Conference, an organization with great influence among Cincinnati's Black voters and the Green Party.

"Having the support of the Baptist Ministers Conference would be just as important to me as the Republican Party," Smitherman said.

He already has the backing of county Prosecutor Joe Deters, who carries a lot of weight in the county party. U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup is a pal. And he has the support of a passel of conservative Republican township trustees in western Hamilton County who don't ordinarily get along well with Cincinnati City Council members.

Smitherman is on the air so much with 55WKRC's conservative talk show host, Brian Thomas, that he could qualify as a co-host.

On City Council, Smitherman carved out a reputation as a law-and-order council member and as a fiscal conservative.

Seems like a natural fit for a Republican Party endorsement.

Except for one little problem.

There's already a Republican candidate for the Dumas commission seat on the primary ballot.

His name is Matt O'Neill of Oakley, an accountant for a medical supply company and a real fly-in-the-ointment for the Hamilton County Republican Party.

Matt O'Neill
Courtesy

The party leadership can't stand the guy; and they don't even know him. He seems to pride himself on his lack of ties to the GOP establishment. He gathered his 50 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, which is not much of a trick.

As an Independent, Smitherman's candidacy for the November ballot won't be certified until after the primary election. And that means O'Neill will be the official Republican candidate for the county commission seat in November, because there is no other Republican running in the primary.

Smitherman had a much more difficult task to qualify for the ballot running as an Independent. While the partisan candidates had to collect the valid signatures of only 50 county voters, Smitherman — as an Independent — had to have 3,397 valid signatures.

O'Neill was the Republican candidate for county commissioner in 2020 because the Hamilton County GOP didn't have a better-known candidate willing to run against Denise Driehaus, a popular Democrat with support in both the city and the suburbs.

Driehaus won, of course, with 58% of the vote, but O'Neill was undeterred and is back at it this year.

O'Neill will have zero party support; he'll have no big-name endorsement and he will likely have very little money to spend. So why should he be taken seriously?

Two reasons:

  • Voters seem to like candidates with Irish surnames. That has always cut across party lines in Ohio.
  • He will have a big fat "R" next to his name on the ballot. Because he will be, in fact, the Republican candidate, no matter what the central committee does with Smitherman.

I've never been a big believer in the power of endorsements. It may be a big deal in the Ohio GOP primaries this year, if and when Donald Trump endorses a candidate for governor and U.S. senator, but that has more to do with cultish fixation than party politics.
The typical Republican Joe Bag O'Donuts voter in Western Hills — who has been paying way more attention to the Bengals than local politics lately — is going to see that "R" next to O'Neill's name and vote for the guy nobody really knows.

Smitherman is right though on one thing — he is a candidate who could draw votes from Republicans, Independents and some Democrats.

"I'm not surrendering the city to anybody," Smitherman said. "I will have a lot of African-Americans voting for me."

An endorsement from the Baptist Ministers Conference, Smitherman said, will make that happen.

But Dumas, the incumbent, stands in the way.

Dumas, a former Forest Park mayor and Lincoln Heights administrator, pulled a rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick four years ago when she came out of nowhere to upend incumbent Republican commissioner Chris Monzel.

stephanie_summerow_dumas.jpg
Courtesy Stephanie Dumas
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She ran a stealth campaign, way below the radar. She had about $12,000 to spend while Monzel raised $389,000.

In other words, she was outspent 32-1. And she was running against an experienced politician who had spent 10 years as a member of Cincinnati City Council and eight years as a county commissioner. Nonetheless, Dumas somehow scraped out a 51% to 49% victory.

The people who make up the Republican establishment in Hamilton County wandered around for weeks like stunned ducks after that loss. They could not believe it. Even a lot of Democrats in Hamilton County were amazed.

It was a win that settled once and for all this hash over whether Hamilton County had turned blue.

If anything, it is a deeper shade of blue today.

Now, let's look at the situation today:

Dumas' name, of course, will be on the Democratic sample ballot that will be passed out at the polls and mailed to practically every Democratic voter in the county. We all learned a lesson in the power of that sample ballot in last fall's Cincinnati City Council election, when voters elected eight of the nine party-endorsed candidates.

One of the powers of incumbency is that it turns cash-poor candidates into prodigious fundraisers. Chances are she'll have a lot more than $12,000 to spend this time around.

And what happens if the Republican and Independent voters in the county are split between Smitherman and O'Neill?

They lose; she wins.

And if that happens, it won't matter who endorses who in this race.