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Will there be a debate in the Ohio governor’s race? The answer is, well, debatable

Jason Whitman, WVXU/Darron Cummings, AP

Ohioans who want to watch candidates for governor debate each other in a televised statewide event this year might not get that opportunity.

For weeks now, Democrat Nan Whaley, former Dayton mayor and now gubernatorial candidate, has been clamoring for statewide televised debates with Republican incumbent Mike DeWine.

Last week, she tweeted out a video, once again, challenging DeWine to accept an opportunity to debate.

“Whether you live in Portsmouth or Cleveland or anywhere in between, you deserve to hear from us. Governor DeWine has been in office for 46 years, since I was 10-months-old. I think folks deserve to hear DeWine defend his record, whether it’s working to ban all abortions in Ohio, signing gun legislation that makes our communities less safe, or failing to deal with rising costs of inflation," Whaley said.

DeWine isn’t committing to a statewide, televised debate at this point. But he's noted he routinely holds press conferences and answers questions from media members on a variety of non-scripted topics. And DeWine said he plans to participate alongside Whaley in editorial endorsement meetings.

“I’ve sat through enough of them and been involved in enough of them to know that those can be give and take going back and forth with one candidate saying one thing and one something else. Look, we’ll see. We’ve made no final decision in regard to that," DeWine said.

“It’s not the same thing," said Herb Asher, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus.

Asher said the public can learn a lot by having both candidates on a stage together in a televised debate, answering questions from the public and moderators. But he said it can pose a risk for a candidate who is already thought to be ahead.

“It’s a political calculation. Is it really worth our while to have a debate and even if they choose to have a debate, then the format becomes the issue. Is it one debate? Is it on a statewide network or is it simple before a city club or a metropolitan club or something? What is the coverage? Is it livestreamed? Who are the moderators? All of these things go into decisions about whether to have a debate or not, the format and all of that, and whether or not a debate is likely to be a particularly consequential event," Asher said.

David Niven, University of Cincinnati political science professor, said that’s likely the calculation that went into the decision back in 2014 when former Republican Gov. John Kasich declined to debate Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald. FitzGerald’s lackluster campaign was damaged after it was discovered that he had been driving without a valid license and was found to be in the company of a woman who was not his wife, inside a car in a parking lot late at night.

“So there’s really two reasons when you might not debate. One is you are so far ahead that you don’t even have to go to bother. And that’s what happened when John Kasich was running against Ed FitzGerald. The campaign was almost over before it started so Kasich refused to debate. The other scenario is you just don’t think a debate comparison favors you so even if the race isn’t over before it starts, you don’t want to take the risk of a direct comparison that might help energize your opponent,” Niven said.

DeWine did debate his Democratic opponent, Richard Cordray, former Ohio Attorney General and now the COO of Federal Student Aid in the U.S. Department of Education. But he didn't debate his Republican challengers in the May primary.

In the case of DeWine and Whaley, DeWine has far more campaign money and has more statewide name recognition. He’s running in a midterm year that many pundits think will be good for Republicans.

But DeWine has been criticized by some in his party for the way he handled the pandemic. He signed the controversial bill into law that bans abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy which is being blamed for preventing a 10-year-old rape victim for having to go out of state to get an abortion.

DeWine said he’ll support going even further on that issue by signing an all-out ban on abortion. And Whaley and DeWine would almost surely butt heads on guns. Whaley supported a gun reform plan that DeWine sponsored but has since abandoned due to a lack of support by lawmakers in his own party.

Asher said public outcry over not debating can also play a role in the calculation.

“If a candidate refused to debate and somehow that became a major issue, then somehow they might be pressured into having a debate," Asher said.

And that’s exactly what Whaley is hoping will happen as she continues to try to talk about the issue on the campaign trail.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.