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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: Democrats and Republicans alike don't like Mike DeWine. He'll still be tough to beat

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks Jan. 21, 2022 in Newark, Ohio. Gov. DeWine has signed a bill into law protecting athletes' religious expression. The bill was inspired by an Ohio teen disqualified from a cross-country race for wearing a hijab without a required waiver. The measure signed by DeWine Monday, Feb. 28, 2022 prohibits school sports regulators from requiring advance waivers or otherwise restricting participants' religious apparel unless it causes a “legitimate danger."
Paul Vernon
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks Jan. 21, 2022 in Newark, Ohio.

Mike DeWine would probably like it if you thought of him as the kindly granddad, doting over his grandkids while digging into hot apple crumb pie, fresh out of wife Fran's oven, all the while keeping a steady and reliable hand on the wheel of Ohio's ship of state.

Well, he may be all of that.

But, deep down, the Greene County farm boy has the heart of a political street fighter. If you take him on in a fight and think you are taking on a dithering old grandpa, you underestimate his skill and grit and his enormous fundraising machine at your own peril.

Yes, the 75-year-old governor has been snubbed by two Republican party organizations in Southwest Ohio. The Butler and Clermont county central committees have endorsed one of DeWine's opponents, former congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate Jim Renacci.

So what?

Generally, endorsements are pretty useless. It has always baffled me as to why campaigns spend so much time hunting them down, collecting them as if they are rare Topps baseball cards. They're not.

It wouldn't surprise me a bit if DeWine is thumbing his nose at the Republican party organizations in Butler and Clermont — he's won both of those counties in previous GOP primaries.

Now, he is facing three opponents in the GOP primary (a primary which may or may not happen on May 3, but that's another story): Renacci; a wealthy farmer from Canal Winchester, Joe Blystone; and Ron Hood, a former state representative from Ashville in Pickaway County.

All three have been clamoring for the endorsement of Donald Trump, who still carries weight with a lot of Ohio GOP voters, especially those delusional enough to think that Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election.

DeWine took himself out of the Trump endorsement sweepstakes right after the 2020 election when he had the temerity to say, on nationwide cable TV, that Joe Biden, in fact, won the election. Trump took great umbrage at that and engaged in some of his typical name-calling.

There really is not too much that is going to rattle DeWine. His campaign website contains a long list of accomplishments he claims for his first term — and at the top of the list is central Ohio landing a $20 billion Intel semi-conductor factory.

The Intel deal will, the DeWine administration says, bring $2.8 billion to Ohio's annual gross product and produce as many as 20,000 new jobs — jobs at Intel (which average $135,000 a year), jobs constructing the plants and indirect and support industry jobs.

"It's going to have a major impact on the state as a whole, not just central Ohio," said Tricia McLaughlin, communications director for the DeWine/Husted campaign. "The whole economy of Ohio will benefit."

But there are some issues hanging out there where DeWine probably has some explaining to do.

There is the matter of the FirstEnergy/House Bill 6 bribery scandal, which ensnared former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and other Republicans in the largest such case in Ohio history. Democrats believe that DeWine's office worked with Sam Randazzo, then the chair of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, to pass House Bill 6, which bailed out two troubled FirstEnergy nuclear power plants. DeWine denies the charge.

Then, too, there is the mess that the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission have made of their sole job — to pass state legislative and congressional district maps that conform to the Ohio constitution. A four-member majority of the Ohio Supreme has rejected GOP maps three times so far; and DeWine is a member of that commission.

All he has done, though, is point the finger of blame at the two legislative leaders on the commission, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman.

Thorny as those issues might be for DeWine, he has a history of wriggling out of any trouble and winning elections.

The man has been running for office almost continually for the past 45 years — for Greene County prosecutor; the Ohio Senate; the U.S. House; lieutenant governor (with George Voinovich); the U.S. Senate; Ohio attorney general; and since 2018, Ohio governor.

DeWine has lost only twice — in 1992, when he ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat John Glenn; and 2006, as an incumbent U.S. Senator running for re-election. He was up-ended by Democrat Sherrod Brown in what was the last really good year Ohio Democrats have had in statewide elections.

For what it is worth, the latest independent polling in the GOP gubernatorial primary shows DeWine is leading the pack. His three opponents are clearly dividing up the GOP primary voters most loyal to Trump and most upset at DeWine for his handling of the pandemic (they think he was too heavy-handed early on, regardless of the lives that may have been saved).

An Emerson College poll, sponsored by NBC4 in Columbus and The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, had DeWine with 34% support. Blystone, whose yard signs have blossomed like kudzu on a Georgia highway, came in second with 20%. Renacci polled at 9%, despite the millions of his own money he is spending. Hood's support was under 1%.

But DeWine and the rest of the field was behind the popular choice — "undecided" came in first with 36.4%.

"It's never great for an incumbent to be under 50%, but I still think DeWine is the front-runner," said Mack Mariani, professor of political science at Xavier University. "Nobody else has closed the deal; and, with COVID waning, that could help him."

That same poll had his two potential Democratic opponents — former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley and former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley — running even at this stage of the campaign, at about 16% each. But Undecided is even stronger on the Democratic side, with 68% saying they haven't made up their minds yet.

Neither Whaley nor Cranley have run statewide before; and there is a whole lot of real estate in Ohio — outside of their Dayton and Cincinnati bases — where even Democratic primary voters don't know them from a hole in the ground.

They have a lot of convincing to do; and not a lot of time to do it.

Still, Ohio Democratic Party Chair Liz Walters believes whichever Democrat emerges from the primary will have a good shot at making DeWine a one-term governor.

"A lot of Ohio voters just look at him as a nice guy who doesn't have a clue of what's going on in this state," Walters said. "The attacks on DeWine's record are landing. The political world looks a lot different today than it did 40 years ago when Mike DeWine was starting out."

The Ohio Democratic Party didn't endorse in the gubernatorial primary. Both Whaley and Cranley asked the party not to endorse, Walters said.

"But it took Mike DeWine three or four meetings to get the endorsement of his party; and it was by no means unanimous," Walters said.

"He's got people on his side who are mad at him and he has people on the other side mad at him," Walters said. "And he doesn't know what to do about it."

We never say never, but, realistically, it is going to be a hard mountain to climb for whichever Democrat comes out of the primary. Maybe, though, if everything breaks their way, the Democratic nominee can push that boulder up to the top.

DeWine's possible Democratic opponents are both rookies at running statewide campaigns. DeWine has run and won umpteen times.

One way or the other, win or lose, 2022 will likely be Mike DeWine's last campaign. But it won't be his first rodeo.

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