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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine enters primary day the favorite to defeat Trump-aligned GOP challengers

DeWine, who is seeking a second term, has been a staple of Republican Party politics in his state for nearly four decades, a conservative establishment figure whose long political career includes representing Ohio in the US House and Senate, as well as serving as the state’s attorney general and lieutenant governor.

That DeWine holds such a significant lead in the polls underscores the unique political dynamics that govern — and divide — federal and statewide elections, with the latter proving less hospitable to Trump-aligned challengers and right wing firebrands.

One factor likely helping DeWine: That Trump himself, despite hinting in the past that he was not a fan of the incumbent governor, has steered clear of the primary. In the end, voters who might have otherwise coalesced behind an anointed candidate have split off in different directions.

“There might have been a different dynamic had there only been one opponent and that opponent had been able to get the Trump endorsement. But the fact that it was divided, I think probably, in a way, influenced what Trump was going to do,” Paul Beck, an emeritus political science professor at Ohio State University, told CNN. “One could imagine in a perfect Trumpian world, he would’ve wanted to endorse whoever DeWine’s opponent was. But then he’s looking at the polls, and he’s saying, you know, if I were to endorse somebody, that’s not going to pull them over the top.”

Still, DeWine had been expected to face a more testing campaign after backlash to his initial response to Covid-19, when he angered some in the Republican base with aggressive restrictions to blunt the virus during the early days of the pandemic. But many of those policies were quickly rolled back and DeWine’s top health officer, Dr. Amy Acton, who came under intense criticism from Republicans, left her job in June 2020.

DeWine’s popularity with the business community in Ohio, a long record of social conservatism, his strong fundraising and poll numbers, and the energy focused on the hotly contested Senate GOP primary has blunted any concerted movement on the right to punish the governor for what conservative critics described as overstepping on pandemic policy.

Blystone, a first-time candidate notable for his silver and white beard and signature cowboy hat, has been critical of DeWine over not going far enough on issues like abortion — he’s for a full ban — and has staked his run on familiar right-wing attacks on what he’s described as government overreach. But in a recent interview with WSYX in Columbus, near where he lives, Blystone said there was at least one issue on which he would would support government intervention: a recently introduced state bill that would ban transgender athletes from playing school sports, hormone blockers and gender-affirming care for minors.

“We’ve gotten to the point where you know we, we’re teaching children in school that they can actually choose their gender identity,” Blystone said. “And we need to, that’s what we need to be teaching our children and I believe that the government is going to have to get in this.”

Renacci, a staunch conservative, is more of a polished candidate, but has been no more successful in the polls. He entered the primary in June 2021 with a wholesale criticism of DeWine administration policies, from taxes to refugee policy. But some of his strongest attacks have been over the governor’s handling of Covid. In an August 2021 op-ed, Renacci accused DeWine of overreaction, leading “with fear,” and imposing “draconian” measures in his initial response.

“DeWine shut Ohio down too quickly and refused to open back up soon enough. He’s reacted more in line with Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan,” Renacci wrote, “instead of Republican governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota.”

But the message does not seem to have broken through — to primary voters or Trump himself.

Renacci has failed to pick up significant traction. A recent Fox poll showed DeWine with 43% to Rennaci’s 24%. Blystone was a close third with 19%. In the campaign’s closing days, Renacci told The New York Times that he had quit even attempting to raise money. DeWine, meanwhile, has significant outside backing.

Though most observers are skeptical that Renacci would have overtaken DeWine even with Trump’s backing, his status in the race has suffered for a lack of it. Still, he made some inroads into Trump circles. He brought on a consultant the former President’s one-time top adviser Brad Parscale, with whom he appeared in a Facebook Live last fall and released an ad titled, “Trump Support Timeline,” which noted that Renacci endorsed Trump’s first presidential election in March 2016, “213 days before Mike DeWine.”

DeWine has been less bothered to catch the former President’s gaze.

In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, DeWine in an interview on CNN less than 10 days after Joe Biden defeated Trump, became one of the first leading Republicans to state the obvious and call Biden the “President-elect.”

“I’m worried about this virus. I’m not looking at what the merits of the case are. It would appear that Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States,” DeWine said.

Trump, days later, fired back at DeWine, suggesting he would support a challenge to the sitting Ohio leader.

“Who will be running for Governor of the Great State of Ohio?” Trump tweeted. “Will be hotly contested!”

In the end, though, the heat from Ohio has mostly emanated from the chaotic Senate primary, with Trump effectively ignoring the gubernatorial contest.

With the support of the Republican Governors Association and state party leaders, DeWine — who never debated his challengers, who include former state Rep. Ron Hood — has focused his messaging on the broader electorate. A recent ad, now pinned to the top of DeWine’s Twitter account, begins with the words: “Joe Biden’s inflation is crushing Americans.”

“Governor DeWine delivered for Ohio when it mattered most and people trust his leadership,” RGA spokesman Jesse Hunt said. “A strong local economy that delivers good-paying jobs has been a staple of his agenda, and that focus is a major reason why he’ll be elected for another four years.”

DeWine has most recently benefited from a decision earlier this year by the tech company Intel to invest a reported $20 billion in the state to produce semiconductor chips, a shot in the arm for Ohio manufacturers and its jobs market — and an opportunity for DeWine tout both his business chops and position himself as a worthy adversary of Chinese industry, a winning issue with Republican voters.

“Intel’s announcement today is a signal to China and to the rest of the world that from now on, our essential manufactured products in this country will be made in the United States of America,” DeWine said at the January event announcing the company’s massive investment.

Renacci, during an online meeting with DeWine hosted by the editorial board of The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com, criticized the deal as a handout to Intel, citing state incentives included in the deal. But that back-and-forth, the closest thing to a debate the contest has seen, is unlikely to have move the needle.

“It’s interesting that Mr. Renacci didn’t cite one thing he’s going to do,” DeWine said during their exchange, “he’s just critical of what we have done.”

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