Cordray, once a game show champion, takes on Mike DeWine in one of the most important and closest gubernatorial races
Ben Jacobs in Dayton, Ohio | The Guardian | Sat 28 Jul 2018 06.00 EDT
In 2016, Ohio overwhelmingly backed a rightwing populist with a domineering personality who hosted a reality TV show. In 2018, Democrats hope the state will vote for a progressive populist who was once a champion on Jeopardy.
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Richard Cordray, the Democratic nominee for governor, possesses a unique anti-charisma. Before his political career, the earnest and lanky candidate, he used his Jeopardy winnings to pay his taxes and buy a used car. A former statewide elected official, he spent seven years in Washington as head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) before launching his gubernatorial bid.
The Republican nominee is Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, a fixture of Buckeye state politics who has been elected to both chambers of Congress and was lieutenant governor before becoming the top state law enforcement official in 2010, when he narrowly defeated the incumbent: Cordray.
In a set of high-stakes midterm elections, in a perennial swing state, this is one of the most important and closest gubernatorial races.
Cordray has sought to characterize DeWine as a political relic. In a hotel conference room in Dayton recently, speaking to an audience of union plumbers and pipefitters, he said: “Whatever you think of Mike DeWine and myself, it is difficult to look at Mike DeWine and see [the] future of Ohio. I represent that future.”
The applause was rather stilted. The plumbers seemed more interested in their coffees and their phones. But in conversation later, Cordray seemed to have been well received. Kelly Jones, a burly union pipefitter from Columbus, told the Guardian he “loved” the speech. A loyal Democrat, he crossed himself about the midterms and said he hoped Ohioans would “wake up and realize what’s going on and make some changes”.
Governor Kasich has done some things that I applaud and have supported, such as Medicaid expansion Richard Cordray
In fact, Cordray and DeWine are almost secondary figures. Much will revolve around the two most significant Ohio politicians of the modern era, Senator Sherrod Brown and Governor John Kasich.
Kasich has become a deeply divisive figure. The two-term governor was a Republican congressman for nearly two decades and ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016 but his criticism of Trump and support for Medicaid mean he is now more popular with Democrats and independents.
In the Republican primary, DeWine tried to separate himself from Kasich and embrace the president. On the governor’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, DeWine walked a fine line, skeptical without wholly denouncing it. Obamacare is anathema to the GOP base but Kasich’s initiative has resulted in more than 700,000 Ohioans gaining healthcare coverage. DeWine said he supported the expansion but wanted to modify it, adding provisions such as a work requirement.
Kasich’s popularity with swing voters has led DeWine to a different tack. In an interview with the Guardian, his running mate Jon Husted said Kasich had “done a lot of really good things as governor”. But, he told the Guardian, “You can get into these discussions and make these judgments on John Kasich on Medicaid expansion. These are decisions that one makes at [a] point of time in your governor[ship] or in your leadership role and we support the strategy that we have going forward.
“[We are] not going to debate what John Kasich or what Donald Trump does. It’s about what we want to do going forward in the future. I have not found it ever helpful in my public service career to look backward and critique how things could have been differently.”
We are not going to debate what John Kasich or what Donald Trump does. It’s about what we want to do going forward Jon Husted
In contrast, Cordray said: “Governor Kasich has done some things that I applaud and have supported and spoken out in favor of such as Medicaid expansion.”
He refused to say if Kasich was a good governor, saying: “It’s for other people to judge. I’m not a pundit, I’m not a scorekeeper.” But he added: “I will build on some of the things Governor Kasich has done where I think he has been effective for Ohioans and I think there’s number of areas where he has been.”
Brown’s politics will be less of an issue in the race than his political influence. A diehard progressive, he is expected to coast to victory against Jim Renacci, a congressman. The question is whether other Democrats can ride his coattails to victory.
Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general, has been a fixture in Buckeye politics. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP
David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic party, told the Guardian Brown was on course to “win places that Democrats only win once every 20 years”. Cordray said having Brown on the ticket “was a significant advantage”.
On the ballot, however, the Senate is below the governor’s race and other statewide offices. Husted shrugged off Brown’s importance.
“We impact them more than they impact us,” he said. “We’re at the top of the ticket and we’re going to be the race that will have the most conversation about it.”
Trump’s influence should also be considered. In 2016, Ohioans flocked to him in a swing from blue to red far above the national average.
As Pepper put it, Trump connected with voters in communities where “it’s not only that they don’t feel like they recovered from the [2008 financial crisis], it’s that they haven’t recovered from the plant closing 25 years ago and [the] opioid crisis is crushing some of those places”.
Those voters wanted change in 2016. The question is do they want it now.
In Husted’s opinion, Ohio voters “want certain things to change but the one thing they don’t want to change is direction of the economy”.
Cordray is staking his campaign on the idea that “there is a lot of energy for change out there”.
“People feel a little restless,” he said, “know that wages have stagnated, they are worried about economic futures, there area lot of communities around the state that feel left out and left behind. They still think they don’t have a voice in Columbus and I want to be that voice.”