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Is September Too Early For Ohio's Democrats To Begin Governor Debates?


There is hardly a significant campaign for high office that goes by without a fight over debates.

Will we have them? How many will have? Where will they be? What will the ground rules be?

And, in some cases, those questions never get answered – usually because of the intransigence of one candidate or another – and no debate ever happens.

But the 2018 gubernatorial race in Ohio will most certainly have debates. In fact, there is one already scheduled.

It is only 23 days away, on September 12, and it will feature the four declared Democratic candidates for governor: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery, former Ohio Senate minority leader Joe Schiavoni and former congresswoman Betty Sutton.

And maybe more, if somebody like, say, Rich Cordray, the former Ohio Attorney General and now head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leaves office and comes back to Ohio to run for governor.

But, with or without Cordray, there will be a debate at Martins Ferry High School in Belmont County, hard alongside the Ohio River in eastern Ohio, a Donald Trump stronghold in last November's election.

David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, says there will be five more after Martins Ferry – two this year and three more before the primary election in May 2018.

And, Pepper, said, they will be live-streamed across the state, so all Ohioans can hear the Democrats – who seem to generally get along fairly well – make their cases on why they should be the next governor of Ohio.

And what about the four announced Republican candidates for governor?

Well, they have no debates scheduled.

A Koch Brothers-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, tried to put one together for September 5 in Columbus, but it fell apart when the best-known of the four, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, pulled out. His campaign manager said it was too early in the process for a debate.

Jon Husted, the Ohio Secretary of State who seems to be the second strongest candidate in the GOP field, followed suit; and that left just Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci. The event was scratched rather than go with just two of the four candidates.

Look, here's the deal: DeWine is clearly the front-runner, at least for now. Why would he give lesser-known rivals a platform where he would likely be the target of their barbs?

No way. Not now. Maybe when (and if) the GOP field thins out a bit.

But the time is right for the Democrats, who are lesser known and have far less money than the Republican candidates for governor. Campaign finance reports showed that, as of July 31, the four GOP candidates had a total of $13.8 million in the bank. The four Democrats? Far behind in fundraising, with $1,570,119 in the bank.

Pepper makes no bones about it – the Democratic candidates for governor need all the exposure they can get.

"It's important for the candidates to get themselves known all around the state,'' Pepper said. "Each has a regional base, but they need to broaden their name recognition in other parts of Ohio."

And choosing Martins Ferry for the first debate was not a matter of pulling a name out of a hat. The Democrats are going there for a reason.

"Eastern Ohio is a part of the state that has been left out and we need to have a stronger presence there,'' Pepper said.

It was Trump Country in 2016; Hillary Clinton's campaign gave southeast and eastern Ohio short shrift. It was a major factor in Clinton losing Ohio's 18 electoral votes.

Kyle Kondik, a native Ohioan who is a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the debates are a good idea for the Ohio Democrats and Martins Ferry is a good choice to kick off the series.

"I think it's a smart plan; and holding the first one in southeast Ohio is wise," Kondik told WVXU. "A Democrat can win statewide without many eastern Ohio counties, but whoever the nominee is can't get blown out in those places the way that Hillary Clinton did."

There aren't a ton of Ohioans paying attention to the governor's race right now, Kondik said, but it is still worthwhile.

"Just rolling up big margins in Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties isn't enough – Hillary Clinton basically did that and got swamped,'' Kondik said.

Cordray is the wild card here – does he get in or not? He's scheduled to be a speaker at the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council's annual Labor Day picnic at Coney Island – but he was invited as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It is hard to imagine that he would use that venue to announce a campaign for governor. And he would have to quit his federal job first. Or be fired, which Donald Trump would love to do. 

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) appears to be worried that Cordray is about to come back and run for Ohio governor. They've filed multiple Freedom of Information requests asking for Cordray's official phone and email records to see if he has been talking to Ohio Democrats back home about the governor's race.

Kondik, who used to do communications work for Cordray when he was attorney general, said there is potential for Cordray to be "an instant frontrunner" in the Democratic race.

But he's not a lead-pipe cinch, Kondik said.

"He's got to prove himself as an instant candidate after he's been out of the Ohio political loop since 2010 because of his federal job,'' Kondik said. "So there's potential there, but some of the other candidates, like Nan Whaley and Betty Sutton, have their fans too. So let's wait and see."

Wait and see is probably a good idea.

But, just in case, there's a good chance that Pepper has a fifth chair ready to put on that stage in Martins Ferry.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.