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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.

Commentary: How Mike DeWine tainted what is likely his final victory

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, center, speaks during an election night watch party as his wife, Fran, stands next to him Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Columbus.
Jay LaPrete
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, center, speaks during an election night watch party as his wife, Fran, stands next to him Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Columbus.

Yes, Mike DeWine won easily. No one is surprised by that.

It will be his last election.

He can't run for a third consecutive term. Ohio law won't allow that. And he will be 80 years old by the time his second term ends.

He'll be going away, after nearly a half century of running for and holding nearly every major office in Ohio — lieutenant governor, U.S. Senator, attorney general, governor.

Too bad his last campaign is nothing to celebrate.

Mike DeWine goes out after running a re-election campaign where he cowered in the shadows, assiduously avoiding any direct discourse with his opponent, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, or the people of Ohio themselves.

He ran and won wearing the mantle of an incumbent scared to death of debating his opponent or even, in many cases, avoiding extended interviews with news media outlets, including this one.

Too many topics he didn't want to talk about: Abortion. Gun control. Redistricting. Even his response to the COVID pandemic, which got high marks from nearly everyone but the people of his own Republican Party.

In the end, he was reduced to being just another Donald Trump shill, sidling up to a vengeful ex-president who, at one point, wanted DeWine out of office.

dewine trump
Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump is greeted by Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, after arriving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to meet with people affected by the mass shooting in Dayton, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

It was Sunday night at a rally at the Dayton airport in Vandalia, where he went on stage with Trump, kowtowing like a dutiful servant while much of the MAGA crowd booed and jeered him, because they don't think he is as mean and hateful as he should be.

DeWine spoke for exactly 19 seconds, blurting out some nonsense about the GOP's favorite straw man this election cycle, "defunding the police."

"Mr. President, in Ohio, Mr. President, we fund the police; we’ve done a great job of that," he said, looking like a man who would rather be anyplace else in the world.

Trump shuffled him offstage to make room for the next sycophant. Trump turned to DeWine's running mate, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, and asked him if he wanted to say anything.

Husted backed away and said, "No, I'm good."

Smart man.

How humiliating it must have been for Mike DeWine. Toadying to Donald Trump at a rally while his supporters jeered him, all in order to show that he is no RINO but a pure-blooded MAGA man.

Just pathetic.

And, yet, there was a huge disconnect between what DeWine has done in his first four years in office and what the majority of Ohioans actually believe on issues like abortion, guns, and redistricting.

The polling is clear on that.

But many of them ended up voting for him anyway.

They simply did not know Nan Whaley. She had a message that could not break through the clamor of DeWine's campaign, with its bottomless well of campaign funds.

Ohio's democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley, center, speaks with reporters at a rally in Cincinnati, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.
Jeff Dean
Ohio's democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley, center, speaks with reporters at a rally in Cincinnati, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

Would debates between the two of them had helped Whaley's cause? Or was it doomed from the start?

David Niven, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, doesn't believe debates would have made much of a difference — although he says DeWine should have agreed to at least one.

"DeWine has demonstrated an ability to say nothing at all this entire campaign — so a debate does not seem to represent much of any threat to him," Niven said.

"Given the scope of his lead — and his at least nodding belief in elections and democracy — showing up for a debate would have been the honorable thing to do, the brave thing to do," Niven said. "But we haven't seen any of that from DeWine since his senate days."

Yes, he seemed to be a different man in the Senate.

He was a friend and ally of the late Sen. John McCain; and took a rather courageous stand with McCain in 2006. They were both among the "Gang of 14," a bipartisan group of senators who led a compromise effort to prevent the majority Republicans from using the so-called "nuclear option" to stop the Democrats' use of the filibuster.

There are many Republicans who have never forgiven DeWine for taking that stand.

It's hard to imagine him putting his career on the line in that way today.

Now, he just runs roughshod over an opponent like Whaley, not even giving her the opportunity to address him face to face in front of Ohio voters.

Whaley made the last campaign stop of her campaign Tuesday morning with Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval, greeting voters and Democratic volunteers outside the polling place in the Pleasant Ridge Recreation Center.

Earlier in the morning, she was with her parents, who live in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, as they cast ballots for their daughter, the first woman to be a major party candidate for governor in Ohio's history. It had been a year of hard campaigning — first to win the Democratic nomination over former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley and then trying to close the gap with an opponent in DeWine who began running for office the year she was born.

She was up against a politician with universal name recognition in Ohio, and much deeper pockets that enabled him to run attack ads against her full of half-truths and outright lies, calling her a "failed mayor who will fail Ohio."

The people of Dayton didn't seem to think so. They elected her to a second term in 2017 and the Republican Party didn't bother to put up a candidate.

But she was too busy introducing herself to voters outside of Dayton to fight the "failed mayor" storyline.

Whaley didn't make excuses when I talked to her Tuesday morning in Pleasant Ridge, but she made it clear what she thought of DeWine's refusal to debate.

"The callousness of Mike DeWine is astounding," Whaley said. "He will do and say anything to hold on to power.

"But when it comes to a debate where he has to explain why he thinks it is OK for a 10-year-old girl who is raped and (becomes) pregnant to have to leave Ohio to get an abortion or explain why he broke his promise to get guns off the streets, he can't bring himself to do that.

"The fact is, Mike DeWine is too cowardly. The people of Ohio are the ones who lose the most."

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