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At Ohio Republican Dinner, Trump Presides Over A Party Divided

President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rennaci.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Associated Press
President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rennaci.

President Donald Trump's mission is to rally Republicans behind GOP candidates in the nation's premier swing state. But when he steps into battleground Ohio on Friday, he's entering a state — and a Republican Party — deeply divided by his presidency.

The Republican president is set to offer the keynote address at a state GOP dinner, an annual fundraiser that traditionally features the region's Republican royalty. Republican Gov. John Kasich, a fierce Trump critic and 2016 presidential primary opponent, won't be there. A spokesman said the term-limited governor, who lives in a suburb of the city where the president is speaking, had a personal scheduling conflict.

No state features an uglier public clash between Trump and a sitting Republican governor. And ahead of high-stakes elections for governor, Senate and several House races, the red-hot intraparty feud threatens to undermine the GOP's chances come November — and could linger into the next presidential campaign.

Trump's chief Ohio lieutenant, Bob Paduchik, the president's hand-picked Republican National Committee co-chairman, cast Kasich as "childish" and "insanely jealous" in an op-ed this month. In a subsequent interview ahead of Friday's dinner, Paduchik repeatedly dismissed any suggestion that Ohio's GOP is divided.

He added that the governor's weekly diatribes against Trump on cable news make Kasich "look a little bit foolish."

"If he wants to spend his last few months as governor the same way he spent the last year and a half, being the antagonist-in-chief, that's entirely his business," Paduchik told The Associated Press. "I wrote what I wrote because, like a lot of Republicans in Ohio, just regular Ohioans, I just got tired of it. You just get tired of the constant whining and complaining."

Kasich, in a recent interview, said "people are getting sick and tired" of the partisan warfare coming out of the Trump White House. And he dismissed Trump's popularity within the GOP as a byproduct of a shrinking party.

"We're dealing with a remnant of the Republican Party," said Kasich, who has not ruled out challenging Trump in a 2020 presidential primary.

As the feud burns deep, Ohio's Republican candidate to succeed Kasich, Mike DeWine, is caught in the middle.

DeWine, a former senator and the current state attorney general, has tried to use his role as one of Ohio's longest-serving and best-known politicians to rise above the infighting and embrace endorsements by both Kasich and Trump.

DeWine brought the entire Republican ticket onto the stage at his annual ice cream social in June and made light of the blistering Republican primary against Kasich's lieutenant governor, Mary Taylor.

Kasich was reluctant to endorse DeWine. He said for the first time that he'd support DeWine earlier this month only after securing assurances that the Republican candidate would preserve Kasich's expansion of health care coverage for low-income residents as part of the Obama-era health care overhaul.

Trump, like most of his party in Washington, has fought to dismantle the health care law.

The president also has repeatedly jabbed Kasich, describing him this month on social media as "very unpopular" and a "failed presidential candidate."

Polling suggests, however, that Kasich may be more popular than Trump in Ohio.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in June found that 43 percent of Ohioans approved of Trump's job performance, while 54 percent disapproved. In the same poll, 52 percent of state residents approved of Kasich's performance and 36 percent disapproved.

That's created awkward moments for Republican candidates such as Jim Trakas, a former and aspiring state lawmaker, as they campaign in politically divided districts.

"I don't think any of us want to be associated with any of it, to be honest," said Trakas, a former GOP chairman in Democrat-heavy Cuyahoga County. "It's a topic to be avoided. When people ask about it door-to-door, you say, 'Did you hear about (Ohio State football coach) Urban Meyer?'"

Yet Republican strategists suggest that each Republican leader could be helpful this fall given Ohio's cultural and socioeconomic diversity — particularly if voters don't force them to choose.

Kasich is especially popular in the suburbs where some of the most competitive House races will be fought. Trump remains popular among many white working-class voters in Ohio's many cities, as well as with rural and Appalachian voters elsewhere.

Yet there's little sign the two are willing to work together.

Each separately took credit for the GOP's razor-thin lead in this month's special congressional election in central Ohio and said the other should have just stayed out of it. The final tally, announced Friday, gave the win to Republican state Rep. Troy Balderson.

Kasich told the AP that his decision to endorse the two-term Republican state senator was essential to the win: "We sure needed me involved in the congressional race out here." Trump, meanwhile, charged on Twitter that Kasich's endorsement actually hurt Balderson by tamping down enthusiasm.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio told reporters this week that the party is unified behind its candidates heading into the fall.

Portman said he was looking forward "to seeing a lot of friends from around the state" at Friday's dinner.

Notified that Kasich won't be there, Portman said: "I'll miss seeing him then."