Analysis: With Cranley and Whaley aligned on many issues, how will voters decide?
For many Ohio Democrats who show up for what is likely to be a fairly low turnout primary election on May 3, the choice between John Cranley and Nan Whaley as their candidate for Ohio governor is not going to be an easy one.
Cranley and Whaley, from 2013 to early January this year, were the mayors of Cincinnati and Dayton, respectively.
They have been personal friends, political allies and, now, as the only two Democratic candidates for governor on the primary ballot, they find themselves in agreement on many issues, and on one thing in particular — that Republican incumbent Mike DeWine must go.
It's clear that Democratic voters outside the Cincinnati and Dayton media markets have been slow to make up their minds in this race — neither candidate started out as a household name in Cleveland or Toledo or Youngstown.
An Emerson College poll in February showed the two tied with 16% each and a whopping 69% of likely Democratic voters undecided.
Many of them have chosen sides since then, but there is likely to be a sizable number still trying to pick a candidate. And, now, they are probably listening more carefully to what the candidates have to say.
In their public appearances together and on stage at formal debates, Cranley and Whaley have, for the most part, done this awkward dance around each other, with each seemingly pretending the other is not in the room.
Instead, they talk a lot about DeWine and what they see as his failures on a number of fronts — public corruption in Ohio; making guns more widely available; for his role in creating the current mess over state legislative and congressional redistricting; and a host of other issues.
Which is fine, because one of them is going to win this Democratic primary and will have to make the case in the fall campaign against DeWine, who it appears is likely to win his own contested GOP primary.
It's good practice for the fall.
So how do Democratic voters decide?
Where they're the same
They are so close on many issues.
Both say they favor legalization of marijuana, although only Cranley has made it one of the top issues of his campaign, saying that it could raise enough money in excise and sales taxes to fund 30,000 new jobs with $60,000 annual salaries for people to work on expanding broadband and infrastructure projects in Ohio.
Whaley, while she says it is time for Ohio to make marijuana legal, is not as enthusiastic about it as Cranley.
"I don't think it is a silver bullet, a magic bean that is going to save Ohio's economy,'' Whaley said in a Columbus Metropolitan Club debate last week.
Both are supporters of abortion rights and say they would veto any legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly that would restrict women's access to abortions.
But, when they speak of it in public forums, Whaley never fails to point out that Cranley came to this side of the abortion issue only when he started running for governor in a Democratic primary.
Whaley and Cranley are both appalled at DeWine for caving in to the ultra-conservative Republican majority in the legislature by signing into law the "stand your ground" bill and the recent bill taking away the requirements of training and licensing for people carrying concealed weapons.
By signing that concealed carry legislation into law, Cranley says, "DeWine has declared open season on cops."
Whaley calls it a "betrayal" of the promises DeWine made to push for gun control legislation after the August 2019 mass shooting in Dayton that left nine dead and 27 wounded.
"Never in my wildest imagination did I think back then that (DeWine) would sign into law legislation that will just make the situation worse,'' Whaley said.
Where they differ
Of course, there are differences between the two — mostly in nuance.
Last week, in the Columbus Metropolitan Club debate, a question was raised about what to do about Ohio's current redistricting mess — with Statehouse Republicans, including DeWine, creating a crisis by continually refusing to produce district maps that meet the requirements of constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018.
Whaley said it is time to "go back to the ballot" with a new plan that would take the whole process out of the hands of politicians.
"I think it will pass, given how embarrassing this has been for Ohio and how firmly Ohioans want this," Whaley said.
Cranley ignored the question about what to do on the redistricting mess and said Ohio Democrats need to be focused on regaining power in the Statehouse.
"We have to win elections,'' Cranley said.
That is something that both candidates have proven themselves capable of doing — although Cranley has been in more hotly contested races over the years than Whaley.
"I think when this campaign started there was an assumption that Nan would win this easily,'' said David Pepper, former Ohio Democratic Party chair. "It seems more of a toss-up now."
Cranley and Pepper served on Cincinnati City Council together from 2001 until 2005, Pepper said he has not formally endorsed anyone in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, but he has contributed to Cranley's campaign - a total of $3,000 this year and in 2021.
Pepper said Cranley is "pretty good at running underdog campaigns."
The best example was the 2013 Cincinnati mayoral election, when former mayor and council member Roxanne Qualls went into a general election contest with Cranley as the overwhelming favorite. Cranley, in a very aggressive campaign, ended up winning that election with 58% of the vote, launching his eight-year run as Cincinnati mayor.
Tim Burke, the former chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, endorsed Cranley early in the campaign and was his representative when the Ohio Democratic Party's central committee was debating whether or not to endorse a candidate in the governor's race. Ultimately, neither candidate for governor was endorsed.
"It was automatic that I would endorse John," Burke said. "He's a longtime friend, going way back to his first campaign against Chabot.
"We have not always agreed; we have had our ups and downs, but there are lot of people in Cincinnati who have had that experience with John," Burke said. "But what sets him apart is that he is a doer. He gets things done.
"I could easily have supported Nan because I think she was a good mayor and a good candidate,'' Burke said. "But with John in the race, there was no question who I would support."
Jeffrey Mims, who followed Whaley into the Dayton mayor's office, feels the same way about her that Burke does about Cranley — endorsing Whaley for governor was the natural thing to do.
Mims, a former educator and longtime community activist, came on board Dayton's city commission about the same time Whaley was elected mayor for her first time in 2013.
"We have seen more progress in this city in the past eight years than Dayton has experienced in the previous 30 years," the mayor said. "The city has been transformed."
Mims takes issue with a Cranley campaign ad in which he brags about Cincinnati's "comeback" during his watch as mayor and points to Dayton as a city lagging behind the rest of the state.
"We've stemmed the tide of population loss and we’ve seen the median income in Dayton rise from about $28,000 a year to $34,000 a year in the past eight years,'' Mims said. "That is significant growth."
Whaley, Mims said, is his choice for governor because he has "seen firsthand her commitment to making peoples' lives better."
Mims said that when he was president of the Dayton Board of Education and Whaley was a city commissioner, she helped lead the effort to pass a school levy in 2008 — the first levy that was not rejected by voters in 16 years.
"She led this city through some tough times — a mass shooting, the KKK event, tornadoes racing through the city," Mims said. "I want to have a strong progressive mayor in the governor's chair."
Last week, at the Columbus Metropolitan Club debate, moderator Colleen Marshall of NBC4 asked about undecided voters and how the Democratic candidates would handle their new status as statewide politicians given the fact that DeWine is universally known in Ohio and has been on the ballot 15 times.
Whaley said the newness of having a woman elected governor should excite women voters. She said that the Democratic Party in Ohio "has been running moderate white men for a long time" and having a woman on the ballot "is something we have never done before."
"Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result — well, there is a saying for that," Whaley said.
Cranley said the gap in name recognition between the Democratic candidates and the incumbent governor "is a big problem."
"The good news is that Mike DeWine is well known and his record as governor is disastrous,'' Cranley said.
It's the thing that binds these two Democrats together. This Democratic primary is about one thing and one thing only — Mike DeWine.