Trump Popular With Ohio Republicans, But Trump-Heavy Campaigns Didn't Guarantee Wins

May 11, 2018

Tuesday’s primary didn’t offer a lot of support for the theory that a Democratic “blue wave” is sweeping through Ohio this year. But there also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence that Republicans have to be on the “Trump train” to win elections.

Though he’s only made three actual trips to Ohio this year, it seemed like President Trump was around a lot this primary season. Trump and references to him appeared in ads and campaign literature, and candidates sought his endorsement – though only one got it, northeast Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci, who won the party’s nomination for US Senate.

Before the primary, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said all this attention on Trump was no surprise to him.  “He has an 85-86 percent approval rating among Republicans. That’s pretty damn good. He has a rock-solid, hard core Republican base that is not going to leave him.”

But some candidates who lost on Tuesday ran Trump-heavy campaigns – Mary Taylor in the governor’s race, Christina Hagan in the 16th Congressional district in northeast Ohio and Melanie Leneghan in the 12th in central Ohio.

Republican strategist and Trump supporter Mike Gonidakis says it was more about a candidate’s positions on the issues than any effort to tie a particular campaign to Trump.  “Democrats rejected extremism like Dennis Kucinich, and Republicans rejected extremism like Mary Taylor and Christina Hagan. When you try to be someone you’re not, you’re going to fall flat on your face and the voters’ll see right through that.”

And other Republicans say beyond a candidate’s personality, name recognition plays a role – such as in the case of gubernatorial winner Mike DeWine, who entered the race with huge name ID.

But Democrats see it differently, noting that DeWine, 16th Congressional district nominee Anthony Gonzalez and 12th Congressional district nominee Troy Balderson touted their support for Trump.

Keary McCarthy is a Democratic strategist and president of the progressive think tank Innovation Ohio, and says every Republican ran towards Trump, but with slightly different intensity. “So it wasn’t as if they were trying to distinguish themselves from Trump, it was just sort of which candidate is more aligned with Trump. And so I think that creates an interesting dynamic going into the general, to see how these Republican candidates position themselves in regards for a general election audience.”

But longtime Republican strategist Mark Weaver says as usual, the primary victors will move more toward the center, and messages about support for Trump will be marketed straight at Trump voters.  “So support for the president will help Republican candidates turn out their base, but the job of Republicans in the general election is to target swing voters who want to hear something else other than about President Trump. They want to hear more issue based messaging.”

But McCarthy says Republicans may have a lot of work to do to reach those more moderate swing voters who are turned off by the Trump factor. “I think voters did see a bit of a difference between Trump Republicanism and Ohio Republicanism. But I think that’s changed after this election. I think the general election is really going to be about whether or not voters in the state of Ohio think Donald Trump is doing a good job, think he’s leading us in the right direction, and I think that’s going to end up probably having a negative impact for the Republican Party.”

But in recent history, the electorate in gubernatorial years in Ohio has been tilted toward the GOP. The best performance ever in Ohio for a candidate for governor was in 1994, when Republican George Voinovich was re-elected with nearly 72 percent of the vote. Since then, only one Democrat has been elected – Ted Strickland – and he only served one term.