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Ohio May Be About to Test the Limits of Trumpism

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio—No one can credibly say Mike DeWine sets a crowd on fire. Earning the closing spot at a Republican candidate showcase in a posh suburb of Cleveland on Thursday evening did him no favors, as most of his audience had been on its feet for 90 minutes already. And his fellow GOP candidates had punchier one-liners than DeWine, who won his first elected office in 1976, needs only the thinest of introductions, and was giving the same speech for the fourth time that day.
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“You’ve been very patient. There have been a lot of speakers,” DeWine said with an apologetic shrug just before 8 p.m. on Thursday just moments before Game 5 of the World Series began. “I want to say something about J.D. I’ve known him for some time. He’s a good man and will represent us well in the United States Senate. This race is incredibly important.”

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DeWine was referring to J.D. Vance, the Republican handpicked by Trump to be the party’s nominee for a rare open Senate seat in Ohio. Vance’s bid against Democrat Tim Ryan, which appears surprisingly close for red-leaning Ohio in a year Republicans are supposed to have the wind at their back, has made the race one of the most closely watched in the country.

For DeWine, that’s meant putting some of his political muscle into helping Vance amid his own bid for re-election against former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Come election eve on Monday, DeWine will be in Dayton with former President Donald Trump for a rally explicitly to boost Vance.

“It’s a rally for J.D. Vance, and certainly I support him,” DeWine told me in Zanesville between his speech and his bus ride northward to the next stop. “I think it’s important that we have J.D. Vance in the United States Senate.”

It’s all a far cry from two years ago, early on in the pandemic, when DeWine was at another Trump rally and drew boos from the crowd when Trump mentioned his name. The MAGA faithful were peeved at the governor’s Covid policies, which they viewed as draconian but had drawn the fleeting respect of the state’s Democrats. DeWine withstood the booing just fine and come Monday, he’ll be back by Trump’s side, even though his contempt lingers for what happened at his former workplace on Jan. 6, 2021.

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That’s because DeWine, perhaps better than any other Republican in the country, understands how to balance his own independence with the Trumpian elements that have remade his party’s core.

Polls have shown DeWine way ahead of Whaley, consistently by double digits. But Whaley is running like she still has a shot, and maybe she does. She spent her week hustling around the state, including a fundraiser on Tuesday in Cleveland looking for yet another, late infusion of cash. Her barbs are sharp, her message highly focused on appealing to voters who remain shellshocked by the Supreme Court’s decision to end a half-century of precedent set by Roe v. Wade on abortion rights. Democrats have a clear advantage in the early-voting, absentee, and voter-registration numbers in Ohio, especially in urban counties where the tallies surpass 2018. Strategists also insist the public polling is missing whole slices of the electorate—especially women.

Still, it’s tough to see how she narrows the deficit. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of polls show Whaley down about 20 percentage points, a brutal reality for a candidate who has grown tenfold in talent since I first met her at a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ event just a few years ago.

“I do think the race changed pretty significantly post-Roe. We felt that particularly in suburbs with women across the state,” Whaley tells me in Youngstown on Tuesday.

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From a callous viewpoint of my home state, Whaley had two built-in advantages: she was the mayor of Dayton during a mass shooting, giving her a first-hand trial by fire; and she remains a fierce advocate for abortion rights well before anyone seriously imagined they’d fall. News flash: school shootings continue, and reproductive health falls.

And yet, Whaley has struggled to find a resonant message that lands with voters. And, embedded in that, is this reality: Ohio has never elected a female governor; the one woman to serve the role did so for just 11 days after her Republican governor resigned to take his job in the Senate. Hillary Clinton snagged 43% of the vote in 2016; Joe Biden ran two points ahead four years later.

One former state legislator texted me the prediction that she expected the race for governor to be “a blowout.” Yet she wondered whether the paucity of other competitive races on the ballot would depress Democratic turnout, hurting Ryan’s chances at beating Vance. Meanwhile, the legislator wonders: “How many people will cross just for Tim?”

Still, if the traditional Democratic coalition turns out for Ryan, Whaley may still make it. “If they turn out, then the rest of us down-ballot could still survive,” former state Sen. Bob Hagan, who is making a bid to return to the chamber, told me inside a Youngstown dive bar on Tuesday as we waited for Whaley to arrive with other Democratic candidates for a rally.

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Others have less optimism in their reservoir for Whaley’s chances. “She started too late. You have to raise a ton of money to get started, and she didn’t do it,” Columbus-based financial adviser Stephen Daley, 57, told me Wednesday night at an event organized by Ryan’s campaign in Bowling Green. “We are going to be a lot like Georgia, where a lot of voters split their ticket for Senate and Governor.”

For his part, DeWine is as measured as ever, and running like the race is far closer than it seems. Back at his rally here in northeast Ohio, he makes a point of highlighting the work of his wife, Fran DeWine, with Dolly Parton to put books in the hands of 362,000 Ohio kids every month. He talks about recruiting companies like Intel to the state to backfill decades of manufacturing losses. And in a heart-tugging pitch about the value of good schools, he links a strong education system to parents being able to keep their children close to home after they are ready to join the workforce.

DeWine talks a lot about jobs—even though Ohio led the states with job losses in September and has yet to dig out of its current 133,000-job pandemic employment crater.

“If you give us four more years, we will continue that path. We have started down that path and we have seen an expansion of our career centers around Ohio,” DeWine said near Cleveland.

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The crowd responds favorably, for the most part, but it’s not uniformly fawning. “He closed the churches but left the abortion clinics open,” laments septuagenarian Beatrice Pautienis. “I won’t vote for him. But I won’t vote against him, either.”

For DeWine, who has mastered this balancing act better than most, that’s good enough.

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