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Regardless of outcome, Ohio governors race is historic for women

Democrat Nan Whaley speaks to a group of supporters at a private fundraiser near Columbus in June, 2022 (credit Jo Ingles, Statehouse News Bureau).jpg
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
Democrat Nan Whaley speaks to a group of supporters at a private fundraiser near Columbus in June, 2022

Ohio voters will decide whether to make history this November. In Ohio’s 219-year history, there has only been one female governor but she wasn’t elected. Statehouse correspondent Jo Ingles reports on the historical significance of the campaign of the Democrat running for governor and why winning will be a challenge for her in this election.

In 1999, Republican Nancy Hollister became governor for 11 days. She was the lieutenant governor under George Voinovich, whose term as a newly elected US Senator began before his term as governor was up.

So Nan Whaley made history when she won the Democratic primary in May, becoming the first woman from a major party elected as a nominee for governor of Ohio. Barbara Palmer is the executive director of the Center for Women in Politics of Ohio at Baldwin Wallace University.

“In the history of the state, there have only ever been four women who have ever appeared on a primary ballot. And so the very first woman to ever attempt to run for governor in the state of Ohio was Evelyn Francis Snow back in 1926. She ran as a Republican and came in eighth out of 12 in the Republican primary so Nan Whaley is the first one to actually win a major party primary so that’s pretty incredible.”

Palmer said if Whaley wins, she’d be the first woman elected governor in Ohio. And with her running mate, former Cleveland Heights mayor Cheryl Stephens, they are the first all-woman ticket ever at the top of the ballot.

Whaley said that’s something many of her supporters realize.

“It’s talked about a lot, you’d be surprised, at the events we go to. It is the point when anybody makes that I am the first female nominee for governor, it is widespread applause across the event. So, I think it’s forgotten about sometimes but for folks, and particularly women who have fought so long for women in leadership, they are really excited.”

But polling suggests it's unlikely Ohioans will Whaley and Stephens over incumbent Republicans Mike DeWine and Jon Husted, who have a double-digit lead.

Ohio State University Professor Paul Beck says Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, isn’t as well-known statewide as DeWine, who has been in government for four decades.

“He’s an incumbent governor. Incumbent governors have all kinds of levers that they can pull that will enable them to have higher standing in the polls.”

Beck said one of those levers is free media coverage of events, such as announcements of new jobs coming to Ohio. Plus, DeWine has refused to share a stage with Whaley in a statewide, televised debate. And Beck noted DeWine has a financial advantage too, with a campaign war chest more than three times the size of Whaley’s.

DeWine has been airing ads like this against Whaley.

“Whaley even raised taxes on seniors and said she would “do it again.” Nan Whaley - a failed mayor who will fail Ohio.”

Whaley’s campaign points out it was Dayton voters, not Whaley, who raised taxes though she did support the city levy that increased funding for more police officers.

Beck said DeWine is further helped by the fact that this midterm election is widely predicted to be a hard year for Democrats.

“Democratic candidates around the country and in Ohio are facing powerful headwinds that are holding them back. It’s a year that it looks like on balance is more favorable toward Republicans.”

And Beck said it’s unclear what momentum the overturning of abortion rights nationwide this summer might have on Whaley’s campaign. She opposes Ohio’s six week abortion ban that was signed by DeWine. It’s on hold but it’s being challenged in court. And she supports a potential ballot measure to codify the abortion rights afforded by Roe vs Wade in Ohio’s constitution. Beck said she might have a small advantage on that issue.

“But it’s an advantage that gets drowned out with voter concerns over inflation, the state of the economy and of course Ohio is an older state age-wise, a state that has a larger percentage of fundamentalist Christians than some of the Northern states have and so the abortion issue, even though it could be to her advantage on the margins, is going to attract a lot of people who are not sympathetic to the position that she has taken.”

Back at Baldwin Wallace, Palmer said it’s important to remember men have always had an advantage over women in politics in Ohio.

“When you look at the career paths of the men who have served as governor in Ohio, they tend to have a lot of political experience. They tend to have served in the U.S. House or been in the U.S. Senate or they have served in the state legislature. And because historically we have had so few women running in those positions, we have very few women running for statewide office.”

Palmer says men who serve as lieutenant governor often get elected to the top post later. But four of the five last lieutenant governors in Ohio have been women as well as Republicans, and none were elected governor. But only Mary Taylor ran for that post, in 2018.

Gov. Bob Taft’s lieutenant governor Maureen O’Connor did go on to become the first woman chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. And she’ll be replaced by a woman, as voters choose between current justices Democrat Jennifer Brunner or Republican Sharon Kennedy.