COLUMBUS, Ohio – This could be a year of major political changes in Ohio.
What is for sure, though, is that the state will be in the national political spotlight through 2016, with the governor seeking to move from Columbus to the White House, a U.S. Senate race shaping up as one of the nation’s most hotly contested, the Republican National Convention coming to Cleveland, the first general election presidential debate at Wright State University and Ohio again looming as a crucial swing state in November.
And it’s not too soon to be thinking about 2018: The race for the governorship is already starting to warm up.
What to watch for:
ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE
History shows it’s hard to overstate Ohio’s importance in the presidential race, and residents can expect to see the nominees crisscrossing the state frequently in the last weeks of the general election.
Not since John F. Kennedy in 1960 has a presidential candidate reached the White House without carrying Ohio, and no Republican has ever done so.
GOP Gov. John Kasich enjoys high favorability ratings in the state, but his presidential campaign needs some strong early primary showings for him to stay in the running nationally. Kasich, who’s aggressively challenging front-runner Donald Trump, is also expressing confidence he’ll break out in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.
“I have to do well enough there … so that I’m the story coming out of New Hampshire,” Kasich said Dec. 27 on ABC’s “This Week” show. “And I think I will be … I’ll catch fire. And if I catch fire, I think the sky is the limit.”
There’s been talk among political buffs about a combination of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Kasich as possible presidential and vice presidential nominees, putting two swing-state candidates together while adding Kasich’s experience in Congress and as governor to Rubio’s potential to draw Hispanic and youth votes.
Democrat Boyd Brown, a former member of the South Carolina House, recently called a Rubio-Kasich ticket “a Democratic nightmare.”
With its closely divided electorate, Ohio is always ripe for partisan turnover when a U.S. Senate election comes along. In 2016, incumbent Republican Rob Portman is viewed by national Democrats as among the GOP’s most vulnerable senators. That is, if former Gov. Ted Strickland wins the Democratic primary.
Strickland lost a close re-election bid against Kasich in 2010 and retains high name recognition across the state. But that’s not all good.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in October had a Portman-Strickland faceoff as too close to call. Strickland’s negatives were higher among those surveyed, while a large number of voters – 38 percent – said they didn’t know enough about Portman to form an opinion. That comes after nearly five years in the Senate for Portman, a former congressman.
Strickland is the Democrats’ endorsed candidate in the March primary against P.G. Sittenfeld. The Cincinnati councilman is still widely unknown among voters. He’s tried to distinguish himself as the toughest candidate on guns and at 31, a fresh alternative to Strickland, 74, and Portman, 60.
JOCKEYING FOR GOVERNOR
It may seem far off to voters, but the 2018 race for governor is front of mind to those who want the office.
Watch for candidates aspiring for the Republican nomination – namely Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted – to seek opportunities to shine as party powerbrokers pour into Cleveland in July.
DeWine, a former U.S. senator, recently inserted himself into one of the Republicans’ top wedge issues of 2016: the fight against abortion provider Planned Parenthood. DeWine led an investigation into allegations that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal body parts. No such sales were identified, but the report raised issues about the disposal of fetal remains that prompted pending legislation.
Kasich’s camp forced a key Husted ally from the chairmanship of the state Republican party. That hasn’t stopped Husted, a former House speaker and state senator, from maintaining his aspirations and the infrastructure necessary to make a statewide run. As state elections chief, he’s likely to be one of the highest-profile state officials of 2016.
Taylor could jump the line by succeeding Kasich if he is on a winning GOP ticket.
Sewell reported from Cincinnati.