In Ohio Governor’s Debate, Wonky Candidates in a Divided State

ALEX: Sydney, that gubernatorial debate we just watched was, to borrow a line, a thrilla in vanilla. It’s almost refreshing to see two very conventional, polite men debate like that. Are we on a different planet?

SYDNEY: No, we’re in Ohio. Marietta, to be exact, near the West Virginia border. You’re right, though — this race is almost a throwback to a time when state politics was more localized and less about what is going on in Washington. The Democratic nominee, Richard Cordray, and the Republican candidate, Mike DeWine, talked about health care, education and algae. But unless I’m mistaken, neither of them mentioned President Trump by name. And Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, also never came up.

ALEX: In some ways, it probably reflects how closely divided Ohio is at this point. Trump won here easily in 2016, but he’s no longer so popular that Republicans want to ride his coattails exclusively, and he’s also not unpopular enough for Democrats to campaign on a squarely anti-Trump message.

These are clearly two pretty wonky guys. I wonder if anything popped out at you about the policy side of the debate?

SYDNEY: Good question. Cordray made it a point throughout the debate to talk about health care and how he wants to continue the Medicaid expansion that the current governor, John Kasich, presided over, while Republicans want to scale it back. Democrats are really making this a central theme on every level of the campaign. DeWine presented a buffet of issues including job training, natural gas and education. The two candidates addressed gun control in an exchange that seemed uncomfortable on both sides.

ALEX: The gun exchange really stood out to me. DeWine and Cordray ran against each other for attorney general eight years ago (DeWine unseated Cordray), and Cordray was endorsed by the N.R.A. because he had been an opponent of gun control. DeWine had voted for gun control as a member of Congress. The roles were really reversed tonight. You had Cordray accusing DeWine of being unwilling to talk about gun regulation. DeWine mostly sidestepped the issue. Cordray is not as liberal on guns as many national Democrats, but his evolution shows how the whole party has changed. What did you think of their styles as debaters?

SYDNEY: Well, the debate was definitely not high octane. It wasn’t even regular unleaded. Though both candidates hit back at each other, they did so in a way that seemed almost polite given today’s incredible divisiveness. Neither shouted. Neither even so much as raised their voice. In fact, they seemed more intent on debating their records as attorneys general than anything else. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic event. But there is some drama here, right, Alex?

ALEX: There is! Bland personalities aside, the outcome of this race will have huge consequences for the second-biggest swing state in this country. You’ve had eight years of total Republican dominance here and after 2016, national Republicans predicted that Ohio was becoming not a purple state, but a red state. This race is a test of that. If DeWine wins, it’s a big boost for Trump heading into 2020 and it will let Republicans set state policy and draw Ohio’s congressional maps heading into the next decade. Cordray winning would give Democrats a chance to recover here.

SYDNEY: It’s also a test for Democrats to see if they can win back voters who went for Obama and then switched and supported Trump. That’s especially important here in the eastern part of the state, which is more rural and has been hit hard by the decline in manufacturing and the opioid crisis.

ALEX: That question has big national stakes. When we were waiting for the debate to start, we saw a TV ad from across the state line in West Virginia, where Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat seeking re-election in a red state, has been attacking his Republican challenger as a pharmaceutical lobbyist who moved there from New Jersey. Democrats in this part of the country are going after people who used to vote for them based on economic issues but have increasingly moved right.

In Ohio, Cordray is trying hard to win some of those voters with a populist message, while DeWine is hoping they vote for an old-school Republican in addition to Trump.

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