Ohio's weird, wild gubernatorial primaries intensify

Rebellious, outspoken campaigns have fought pitched primary battles with establishment favorites in one of the nation's most important gubernatorial races. Do Dennis Kucinich and Mary Taylor have any chance of toppling their parties' front-runners?

click to enlarge Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich have taken unusual campaign approaches as they look to defeat establishment favorites in their respective party primaries. - Photos by Gage Skidmore
Photos by Gage Skidmore
Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich have taken unusual campaign approaches as they look to defeat establishment favorites in their respective party primaries.

A former presidential contender with alleged ties to supporters of a dictator in Syria. A lieutenant governor showing up to a gun rights rally with a shotgun as she works to brand herself as an outsider. Facebook boasts about romantic conquests.

In Ohio’s post-Trump landscape, it's been a weird and heated gubernatorial primary season as candidates battle for nods from their parties so they can contend for term-limited Gov. John Kasich's seat in November.

On the GOP side, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and running mate Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted are the favorites against challengers Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and her running mate Nathan Estruth.

The Democratic Party’s primary is a bit more crowded — and contested. Former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray is facing a surprisingly stiff challenge from former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is running an unconventional, populist campaign.

Taylor is trying to take on DeWine, usually seen as a staunch conservative, from his right. The two have traded sharp barbs as the campaign has gotten more and more acrimonious. Some of those have been over the resignation of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, who exited office after revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into ties between Rosenberger and lobbyists for the payday loan industry. Taylor says DeWine is too cozy with Rosenberger, blasting a phone call the attorney general made to the now-former speaker encouraging him to resign. DeWine says he made that call because Rosenberger had become a "distraction" at the state house.

Under most circumstances, it would be difficult for a sitting lieutenant governor to position herself as the outsider candidate in a race, but Taylor has DeWine’s 40-year career as an elected official — and the topsy-turvy post-Trump political landscape — to work with.

DeWine has held just about any elected position you can think of in the state. He served briefly as a state senator in the early 1980s before moving up to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented Ohio’s 7th District between 1983 and 1991. He then made the jump to lieutenant governor under Ohio GOP political giant Gov. George Voinovich. Then it was immediately off to the U.S. Senate for 12 years. After a few years cooling off, DeWine became Ohio’s attorney general in 2011.

To that end, Taylor’s campaign — and PACs supporting her bid — have dug up plenty of fodder for TV ads, including votes for gun control and immigration reform he took as a senator.

“AMNESTY FOR ILLEGALS,” “GUN BANS,” “MORE DEBT,” trumpets the text in one ad by Taylor’s campaign. “DC DeWine voted for all of it,” Taylor intones over top of the ad, saying that as a senator (he served from 1995 to 2007), DeWine voted with Democrat Hillary Clinton 952 times.

Taylor is throwing everything she can at DeWine. Last year, polling showed her losing the primary by 40 points against him. A poll taken last month by Fallon Research commissioned by a GOP lobbyist suggested she had narrowed that gap and is now only 18 points behind, though other recent polling suggested a larger deficit.

At first, DeWine’s campaign strategy appeared to be to shrug off Taylor, to his challenger’s chagrin. The two have not debated, though they did meet with the editorial board of Cleveland.com earlier this month, where they debated about whether or not they had debated.

But after Taylor’s last ad blitz, DeWine lashed out, calling her a “phony” when it comes to conservative causes.

DeWine has some far-right cred. He has fought often-losing legal battles to protect state lawmakers’ ever-growing regulations on abortion providers and efforts to strip state funding for health screenings from Planned Parenthood. But Taylor’s campaign says he has yet to address doubts about his own conservative credentials, including questions about how he would address Ohio’s Medicaid expansion.

Gov. John Kasich ushered in that program, part of Obamacare, after a fight with his own party in the state house. Taylor has said she would eliminate the expansion her boss fought for, which insures about 700,000 Ohioans.

That and other moves by Taylor — including an appearance at a gun rights rally after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. to which she brought a shotgun to underscore her commitment to the Second Amendment — seem to be a clear play to try and bottle the lighting Trump tapped into to grab a decisive eight-point win in the Buckeye State during the 2016 election. Taylor’s approach also seems pointedly calculated to distance herself from Kasich, who recently pushed moderate gun restrictions and has long been one of Trump’s most vocal GOP critics.

DeWine hasn’t gone nearly as far as Taylor in his statements on gun control or Medicaid — though he does say the Obamacare-era program is financially unsustainable.

Meanwhile, the race between Democrats has gotten stranger.

Recent polling showed Kucinich and Cordray neck and neck. That, however, was before revelations that Kucinich took $20,000 from a group known to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which he didn’t initially disclose in requisite filings.

Following controversy, the former Democrat presidential primary contender and Cleveland mayor said he would return the money, which he received for speaking at what he calls a peace summit in London.

“I am not nor have I ever been an apologist for anyone,” Kucinich wrote in a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board, which endorsed him, explaining his appearance at the summit. “In a lifetime as a public servant I have never carried water for any interest, foreign or domestic.”

The group that paid him the money is an umbrella organization for the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which has made pro-Assad statements on its website and been accused of spreading pro-Assad propaganda. Kucinich also made a January 2017 trip to visit Assad in Syria.   

Kucinich has run a campaign that in some ways looks like a standard progressive pitch and, in other ways, looks very different. He’s hit many contemporary left-leaning talking points —equitable, single-payer access to health care, ending America’s wars overseas, increasing wages and an ‘F’ rating from the National Rifle Association that he wears like a badge of honor. He’s used that to hit Cordray for his more moderate stance on gun control.

His populist approach has won him endorsements of some big-name groups and local politicians, including Our Revolution -- a national progressive political group -- and Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune.

But he’s hard to pin down, sometimes speaking up to defend Republican President Donald Trump or to downplay Russia’s involvement the 2016 election. And, for some, the Syria chapter of his candidacy has complicated his appeal.

In contrast to Kucinich’s wild ride, Cordray has floated a mostly sleepy, staid campaign backed by Democratic Party donors and labor unions. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own progressive bona fides, however: The former state treasurer and attorney general (he won a special election in 2008 before losing to DeWine two years later) has garnered the backing of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a stalwart progressive populist. He also has the distinct advantage of being able to tout the millions of dollars he wrangled from big banks for taxpayers during his legal fights heading the CFPB.

There are two other contenders in the Democratic primary — State Sen. Joe Schiavoni and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill. Schiavoni has mostly taken the safe and steady Cordray route.

O’Neill has opted for a different path. Not long after launching his campaign, he drew ire from some progressives for trying to defend U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who had been accused of groping a reporter, by recounting his own romantic affairs via a Facebook post. He later apologized for the post.

He also made some less-than-desirable headlines at a debate earlier this month in Middletown, when he told attendees he didn’t know anything about the Brent Spence Bridge. The aging bridge, technically owned by Kentucky, pops up often on lists of critical infrastructure needs and will likely require a multi-billion-dollar replacement in the coming years. That has caused headaches for Gov. Kasich, but apparently not for O’Neill.

All this gubernatorial intensity has translated into a lot of money raised and spent on all sides. 

Pre-primary campaign finance reports filed April 26 reveal about what you'd expect: the establishment favorites on both sides racked up big bucks, while their opponents took home smaller hauls.

Among Democrats, Cordray has the big advantage. The party and labor union favorite has raised about $1.4 million since the beginning of this year. Kucinich was runner up, scoring more than $592,000. Schiavoni trailed a distant third, bringing in $87,105. O'Neill rounded out the pack with his $68,268 haul.

As you might expect, Cordray also has the biggest war chest going forward with $1.6 million in the bank compared to Kucinich's almost $275,000, Schiavoni's $73,000 and O'Neill's slim $5,325.

Meanwhile, DeWine raked in the most dough on the GOP side. He's raised $1.7 million since January to opponent Taylor's $410,497. DeWine has about $7.4 million in the bank right now, even after dropping almost $5 million on TV ads against Taylor. Kasich's second-in-command has fired back with her own $5 million in TV ads, but she's outgunned money-wise compared to establishment favorite DeWine's access to big GOP donors. She now has about $2 million on hand.

DeWine has given his campaign about $1 million of his own money, while Taylor and running mate Estruth have given their campaign more than $3 million. ©

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