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Will Ohio's Gubernatorial Race Include a Trump/Kasich Proxy Battle?

Mary Taylor
WKSU public radio

Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor’s official announcement last week that she’s running for governor rounds out the GOP field at four. More than the others, though, Taylor is walking a line, praising the progress of Ohio under Gov. John Kasich, while drawing distinctions. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on what may be shaping up to be a proxy primary battle between Kasich and President Donald Trump

Update and clarification: The Ohio Republican Party says that Chair Jane Timken is an ally of all four GOP candidates for governor -- Jim Renacci, Mary Taylor, Jon Husted and Mike DeWine -- and the state party will not be endorsing in the 2018 primary race among them.

Kasich has endorsed Taylor, who’s served with him for nearly seven years.

In early 2016, that would have had a huge upside and very little down. Kasich had easily won re-election, authored a series of tax cuts that GOP primary voters embraced, and he played up “The Ohio miracle” in his campaign for the Republican nomination for president.

'I have served with a man who I believe cares deeply for the state of Ohio. And who made the decisions he believed were in decisions for the state.'

But Donald Trump ultimately won that nomination -- and the presidency --and Kasich has continued to criticize him. That’s left Kasich on the outs with some Ohio Republicans – like the one man   ho raised the issue when Taylor launched her campaign at the City Club of Cleveland:

“A lot of people in that part of the state (southeast) are not real pleased with the current governor, so what do you say to conservative Republicans who say they can’t support you because of the current governor?” he asked.

“So my response," began Taylor. "Look: I am an individual; I bring my own life experience, I bring my own professional experience. I have served with a man who I believe cares deeply for the state of Ohio. And who made the decisions he believed were in decisions for the state. I don’t agree with my husband, 100 percent of the time. You can ask him..."

Trump's thorn
Dave Cohen, a political scientist with the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute, says Taylor can expect many more such questions about Kasich.

“He’s been one of the few visible Republicans on the national stage who has criticized the president and the base really doesn’t like that, and so the challenge for Mary Taylor is getting through that Republican primary.” 

Cohen says Kasich is likely to be a bigger boost with general election voters.

Kasich Republicans
But that’s not to say support from a popular Ohio governor is a bad thing in his party’s primary. Owen Brigner is a high school senior who’s been dressing up in suits to watch presidential debates since he was 12. He made the trip from the western edge of the state to Cleveland just for Taylor’s announcement.

“She’s done a lot of great things in the past eight years, and I’m a big fan of Gov. Kasich so it’s just natural to support her.”

And the 17-year-old, who got very enthused about Mitt Romney in 2012, is not a big fan of Donald Trump.

For her part, Taylor says it’s important to get along with D.C. – regardless of who is governor and who is president.

“I think it’s important to have a good working relationship with the administration in Washington. You need to have open lines of communication so you can be communicating the challenges that we face and the solutions that they can be a part of. And you also need to tell them to get out of the way when they need to get out of the way.”   

Trump's preference

Jim Renacci campaign ad
Credit Jim Renacci campaign ad
Jim Renacci campaign ad
Jim Renacci is running as the non-career politician in Ohio's gubernatorial race.

But one of the other Republicans running for governor is going much further. Northeast Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci rode into office on the Tea Party wave of 2010 and his first endorsements for governor came from Bikers for Trump and Citizens for Trump.

“It’s essential that we get career politicians out of the way," a Renacci ad proclaims.

Trump 'didn't hesitate several months ago when he was president-elect from getting involved in Ohio politics. I don't see him sitting on the sidelines this time.'

“Renacci was one of the first members of Congress to support the president during his presidential campaign," says political scientist Cohen, "certainly one of the first Republicans from Ohio.”

He notes that a Renacci ally – Jane Timken – ousted a Kasich supporter – Matt Borges – as Ohio’s GOP Party chair, and that all happened with the heavy support of Donald Trump. Cohen expects a repeat.

"He didn’t hesitate several months ago when he was president-elect from getting involved in Ohio politics. I don’t see him sitting on the sidelines this time.”

Local parties and their primary roles
As key as the national attention the race gets will be what happens at the county level. Local parties are key in get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in party primaries.

Rob Frost is Cuyahoga County’s Republican Party chairman. For now, he’s not playing favorites – not with Taylor, Renacci nor the other two GOP candidates: Mike DeWine and Jon Husted – nor for that matter with John Kasich or Donald Trump.

"We value the experience these candidates bring. We have four very qualified candidates who have announced that they’re running and we want them to keep it on the issues, keep it on the positive. “

And to emerge from the GOP gubernatorial primary united -- perhaps more so than the party emerged from the 2016 presidential race.

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.