Richard Cordray, the Democrat who entered the Ohio governor’s race with endorsements, money, and big-name surrogates like Elizabeth Warren, beat back an insurgent populist challenger Tuesday night after finding himself in one of this year’s most closely watched primaries.
With Cordray’s victory against Dennis Kucinich, Democratic officials here said they’re confident they can seize on an opening not seen in more than 10 years in Ohio, a state that voted for Barack Obama once, then twice, before propelling Donald Trump into the White House. The reason has less to do with Cordray himself, according to his own campaign strategists, than with a sitting president who loomed over the Republican primary, pushing the candidates to spend more and move further to right.
The Democratic race in Ohio never promised to be the most competitive or contentious primary of 2018. Still, the Cordray-Kucinich matchup, with its particular mix of setting, personality, and supporting cast, made the race something of a Rorschach test for a party that has been consumed as much by the prospect of winning in November as by a debate over how to win — and with what brand of Democrat. Against the backdrop of an industrial Midwest electorate, Cordray vs. Kucinich seemed to lend itself to every available national lens: It was Hillary vs. Bernie. It was Warren vs. Bernie. It was establishment vs. grassroots. Pragmatist vs. ideologue. Progressive vs. true progressive.
Cordray and Kucinich, Democrats here said this week, never quite fit the labels. Both ran as progressives (Cordray as the former head of Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Kucinich as a longtime supporter of Medicare-for-all). Both finished the primary with prominent endorsements. (Cordray claimed the support of Warren and Ohio’s top labor groups, Kucinich of Sanders’ political group, Our Revolution.) And both entered the race with vulnerabilities in a Democratic primary (Cordray with a more moderate stance on guns, Kucinich with ties to supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including a sympathetic group that paid him a $20,000 speaking fee).
“People have tried to put this primary in a box,” said David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “Some very active Bernie supporters support Kucinich. But I also think he's taken positions in the last couple years that I think Sanders would say he strongly disagrees with, which is probably one reason he himself hasn't weighed in.”
More prevalent for primary voters, said Pepper, was the question of electability in November. “People in Ohio know there's an opportunity here we have not had in a very long time,” he said. “Electability really is something people are thinking about.”
On Tuesday, in a conference call with reporters hours before polls closed, Cordray’s top campaign officials didn’t mention Kucinich. They spent much of the call instead on the Republican primary, arguing that the presumptive nominee, state attorney general Mike DeWine, had spent more time attacking rival Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and embracing Trump than making a positive case for himself.
DeWine emerged from a nasty GOP primary that cost him and Taylor a combined $10 million. (Cordray, by comparison, spent upwards of just $1.7 million, according to filings.) Both candidates, once allies of John Kasich, the sitting Republican governor who brought Medicaid expansion to Ohio, spent the spring fighting each other for Trump voters.
Cordray, in his victory speech at a downtown Columbus hotel, called the DeWine-Taylor battle one of the "ugliest" he's ever seen. "We now have a clear choice in November," Corday added, "and the things we stand for could not be more different."
There has been nervous chatter among Ohio Republicans in recent weeks about how far to the right Taylor had forced DeWine. The thinking in these circles: Cordray might not be a flashy nominee, but Democrats already have an energized base and don’t need a candidate to manufacture one. Republicans, conversely, have to overcome Trump’s unpopularity in the fall.
DeWine had hoped to ride his high statewide name-recognition and popularity through November. But despite his conservative credentials over decades in public office, Taylor emphasized Senate votes he had in common with Hillary Clinton while presenting herself as the candidate most in tune with Trump (never mind her past alliance with Kasich, whose early endorsement she took pains to distance herself from in recent months).
As a result, DeWine spent more money than he would have liked to on the primary. When Taylor allies launched an attack ad portraying DeWine as too liberal, DeWine responded with an ad of his own that questioned Taylor’s work ethic as state auditor and lieutenant governor. DeWine also began playing up his opposition to sanctuary cities and his support of Trump’s travel ban.
“I don’t think he answered [Taylor’s] charges,” one Republican strategist said. “I think that stuff is going to stick with the base. I think DeWine has got two issues here: How quickly can he unite the base, and how quickly can he grab hold of the middle? The DeWine-Husted ticket can do that, but it will take some [additional] resources.”
Other Republicans are more optimistic. “Mike is a known quantity,” said Matt Borges, the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party. “People know him and know what he stands for.”
“Oh, I think the upside to a primary is it can show you’re a fighter and a winner,” one veteran Ohio Republican operative said. “They’ll come home for Mike. No panicking necessary.”
Democrats in Ohio also hope that an array of scandals in Columbus — including a payday lender inquiry that forced the Republican speaker to resign — can help carry the general election. In 2006, a pay-to-play scandal helped the party win the governor’s mansion, breaking a decade-long Republican hold on all three branches of state government.
The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, began telegraphing Monday how it would campaign against DeWine or Taylor: by branding either as a Trump loyalist — and by also questioning why they ran away from a popular outgoing Republican governor whose politics have looked more moderate when compared to the president's.
“Whoever wins the GOP primary won't be running for a third term of Gov. John Kasich,” DGA communications director Jared Leopold tweeted, “they'll be running for a first term of Gov. Donald Trump.”
Ruby Cramer reported from New York, Henry J. Gomez reported from Columbus, and Ryan C. Brooks reported from Cleveland.