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Why Ohio has one of the most bizarre — and important — governor’s races in 2018

Dennis Kucinich, Bashar al-Assad, Kasich 2020, and the FBI: Ohio’s 2018 governor’s race, explained.

The Ohio governor’s race, from left: Mike DeWine, Mary Taylor, Richard Cordray, and Dennis Kucinich.
Getty Images/Associated Press

There is nothing normal about the 2018 Ohio governor’s race. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is making an appearance. An FBI corruption probe has shaken things up. Obamacare could be important — over on the Republican side. Welcome to one of 2018’s most bizarre campaigns.

Both primaries look competitive. Mary Taylor, the sitting lieutenant governor, is sending all of her fire toward the sitting attorney general and presumptive favorite in the Republican primary, Mike DeWine, hugging as close as she can to the far right and President Trump to try to get an upper hand. Over on the Democratic side, Elizabeth Warren-endorsed former Obama administration official Richard Cordray is looking to fend off Dennis Kucinich, a former Congress member who is now a Fox News talking head with an unusual affinity for Trump and the Syrian government.

Hanging over all this is term-limited Gov. John Kasich, who is relatively popular overall but has turned off many in the Republican base with his anti-Trump rhetoric — and oh, by the way, he keeps publicly fueling the speculation that he just might try to topple Trump in the 2020 GOP presidential primary.

“He occupies this very strange space in that he’s almost a man without a party, even though if he were on the ballot again he’d probably win reelection,” Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who has written a book on Ohio politics, told me. “I find it very challenging to figure out his place in all of this.”

And one other thing: A massive scandal could be brewing in the state’s capital, Columbus, where the state House speaker is resigning amid an FBI corruption probe.

The primary is May 8. While the money should be on DeWine prevailing in the Republican race and Cordray, the former state attorney general who led President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, becoming the Democratic nominee, you can’t quite take that to the bank.

The Buckeye State is one of the most important governor’s races in the country, a test of whether any Democrat not named Sherrod Brown can still win statewide here, and it might also be the most wide open. Given Ohio’s swing-state nature, all four candidates could plausibly be the state’s governor in a year’s time.

The Ohio Republican governor’s primary, explained

Here’s the rub for the Republicans running to replace Kasich: He might indeed be broadly popular — 51 percent approval, per Morning Consult — but the GOP base is turning against him. A recent poll found that only 44 percent of Republicans approve of their governor, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, while 77 percent approve of Trump.

“They’re running as fast as they can away from him,” one Ohio Republican told me.

DeWine, the Republican attorney general and former US senator, has been treated as the most likely Kasich successor for a while now. He’s the one walking a tightrope on some issues: On Medicaid expansion, for example, which Kasich had pursued by circumventing the GOP-led legislature, DeWine has been hard to pin down, the Toledo Blade reported.

Taylor, meanwhile, has said flatly that she opposes the Medicaid expansion, even as it covered 300,000 of the state’s poorest residents in a state with one of the nation’s worst opioid crises. That tracks with her general strategy of taking the hard-right stance and trying to shore up the Trump wing of the party by painting DeWine as a sellout.

“If you like President Trump, then you won’t like Mike DeWine,” narration from a recent pro-Taylor PAC ad begins, citing alleged heresies by the frontrunner on immigration, guns, and trade.

The most recent poll of the race found DeWine with a substantial lead — 43 percent to Taylor’s 26 percent — but the gap has narrowed considerably. DeWine had been leading 54 percent to 14 percent in January.

Perhaps in a sign of DeWine’s discomfort, his campaign has gone on the offensive against Taylor, with TV ads portraying her as lazy.

“DeWine has been treating Taylor like a very serious threat now for a little bit,” Kondik said. “Aggression is interpreted as a sign of fear.”

The attorney general, who has won four statewide races, is still the favorite — the Ohio Republican I spoke with, who supports DeWine, said they were “99.9 percent sure” that he would prevail. And the establishment stigma doesn’t mean he’s a moderate: DeWine is a vocal abortion opponent who worked with Kasich to try to defund Planned Parenthood and has said he would have signed a bill banning abortion once a heartbeat is detected, which Kasich had vetoed.

But Taylor is turning it into a race with her aggressive tactics. Another ad slams DeWine for voting for “amnesty” while in the Senate — alongside Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Ohio Democratic governor’s primary, explained

The Democratic contest could end up being equally eventful and represents something of a family feud within the left: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has taken one side, and a Bernie Sanders-aligned group is on the other.

The two big names are Cordray and Kucinich. Cordray, then the state treasurer, was elected as Ohio attorney general in 2008 in a special election but lost in 2010 in his bid for a full term — to DeWine. He later served as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, from 2012 to 2017.

That likely helped earn him the support of Warren, a progressive stalwart, who came to Ohio in April to campaign for Cordray.

“There’s no way you can paint Rich Cordray as not being progressive,” one Ohio Democrat told me. “He’s taken $12 billion away from Wall Street.”

Kucinich, on the other hand, is ... eclectic. The former Cleveland mayor represented the area for 16 years in Congress, becoming one of the House’s most prominent doves and a fierce critic of President George W. Bush and even President Obama for their military adventures. He has criticized Cordray during the campaign for not being sufficiently opposed to guns. The ex-congressman has the support of Our Revolution, the grassroots group that grew out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, even if the senator himself is staying out of the race.

However, Kucinich has occasionally defended Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and been paid by pro-Syrian government groups. He also praised Trump’s inauguration speech (in a since-deleted tweet), and he’s appeared on Fox News to laud the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum — though it should be noted that Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is also a fan of the tariffs.

“I would never discount Dennis Kucinich because he’s a great, energetic campaigner,” the Ohio Democrat said.

For now, Cordray hasn’t gone after Kucinich the way DeWine has attacked Taylor. His campaign’s first TV ad is a positive spot with President Obama praising his then-consumer finance watchdog.

Watchdog

Posted by Richard Cordray on Monday, April 9, 2018

That recent Ohio poll found Cordray with 27 percent of the Democratic primary vote while 13 percent of voters backed Kucinich. So Cordray’s lead is healthy, but there are quite a lot of undecided voters — and at least one other credible candidate, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, who could still shake up the race. (A fourth contender — Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill — had also his moment in the spotlight when he boasted that he had slept with 50 “very attractive females” as a young man. But he’s polling in the low single digits.)

“If Cordray starts attacking Kucinich on television, that would be the clearest sign that Kucinich is a real threat to Cordray,” Kondik, who worked under Cordray when he was Ohio Attorney General, said.

Peering ahead to the general election, it’s really too early to say. Some unknowns include how much of the race is nationalized (i.e., how much of it is about Trump) and whether the Senate race tilts toward Brown, an advantage for Democrats, or away from him.

There is one other thing Ohio politicos are watching. Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger announced last week he was resigning amid an FBI investigation. From the Dayton Daily News:

Sources familiar with the FBI inquiry say investigators are looking at a four-day trip to London in August 2017 sponsored by GOPAC Education Fund. Along on the trip were at least two lobbyists for the payday lending industry. Factions of the industry have been trying to stall or water down House Bill 123, which calls for a crackdown on abusive practices, for more than a year.

Republicans have ruled Ohio since 2010. A high-profile ethics scandal for one of their leaders, in an environment already favorable to Democrats, could give either Cordray or Kucinich the steam they need to get to the governor’s mansion.

“Kasich is doing his party a favor in that he’s trying to hand the baton off without any sort of ethical problems. But there may be an ethical problem — not with the governor but with the Republican brand,” Kondik said. “Democrats have sometimes been aided in big elections in Ohio by GOP ethical and corruption problems.”

John Kasich 2020, explained

Meanwhile, Kasich, who has been Ohio’s governor since 2010, has been making a lot of trips to New Hampshire of late. Either he really, really likes it there or he is seriously considering a primary challenge against Trump in 2020.

“I think I’m increasingly viewed now as not just a Republican but as something different, kind of a hybrid,” Kasich told the New York Times during his most recent trip to the Granite State. “I have people of all shapes, sizes, philosophies and party preferences that approach me. But what does that mean? I don’t know. I’m on television, so all the sudden they want to talk to me. Television moves everybody up, right?”

The Times elaborated on a potential Kasich platform:

Mr. Kasich’s case against Mr. Trump rests as much on tone as substance. The governor, a longtime supporter of free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been sharply critical of the president’s tilt toward protectionism on trade, saying it runs afoul of the Republican Party he knew. He has also lamented the president’s bid to dismantle DACA, the program aimed at protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

On this and other issues, though, Mr. Kasich has sought to contrast himself with Mr. Trump most pointedly as a spokesman for national decency.

Kasich, of course, ran a failed presidential campaign in 2016. He was the last candidate to drop out once Trump clinched the nomination, but he hadn’t been Trump’s strongest challenger — that prize went to Sen. Ted Cruz, who is facing a moderately serious challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Kasich only won Ohio, his home state, amassing 4.3 million votes nationwide to Trump’s 14 million.

But he is term-limited out of the governor’s mansion, and he doesn’t have much else to do. If nothing else, Kasich is going to weigh another White House run for a while, even if he would be challenging a sitting president. I’ve talked with people who know Kasich a few times over the past few months, and the consensus seems to be that they understand why he would be looking at it but they hope he realizes it’s futile.

For now, though, the governor hasn’t gotten the memo — maybe because he’s seen some of the latest polling. A February 2018 poll by the University of New Hampshire found that 60 percent of GOP primary voters would support Trump, while 18 percent would vote for somebody else. A solid majority, perhaps, but not exactly an unassailable position for the current White House occupant.

Then BuzzFeed reported earlier this month that a different New Hampshire poll, by the American Research Group, found Kasich narrowly trailing Trump: 42 percent to Trump’s 48 percent. That’s a real race.

Kasich has time to figure out what he wants to do once he leaves office. But his potential candidacy — and his positioning as the premier anti-Trump Republican — will cast a large shadow over the race to succeed him.