Forget Washington, the real shows to watch in 2022 are the elections here in Ohio

January 25, 2022 3:20 am
A voting location

File photo of a voting location from Wikimedia Commons by Tom Arthur.

Grab your popcorn. The show could be good. It’s getting to the point where, like a compelling Netflix series, you might have to stick around to see how it ends. Can’t say the same about the stale story line in Washington that we follow as a form of self-torture. No, the real drama worth pulling up a chair for is unfolding at the state level. Look no further than Ohio. 

Political intrigue is building on multiple fronts. Midterm election deadlines add suspense to backroom whispers. As soon as election-rigging Republicans — whose gerrymandered district maps were struck down by the state supreme court as unconstitutional — comply with the law on fair redistricting, the plot of anything goes could take off. Candidates are beginning to take the gloves off in high stakes contests. Audiences are starting to tune in with an eye on the season finale.

Those competing for top billing in statewide elected offices and federal offices usually suck most of the air from the (press) room, relegating lower ballot candidates to an asterisk. We’ll see. So far, Gov. Mike DeWine isn’t wowing anyone with his reelection performance. He’s given interviews without saying anything while trying to convince MAGA Republicans that he’s one of them. That crown has already been claimed by his leading Republican challenger and former congressman Jim Renacci, who has money to burn brandishing his cred as most authentic extremist.   

Two Democrats coveting the governor’s mansion have begun circling each other with implicit snark about who is more pro-choice — as the future of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is counting down the weeks that former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley refuses to commit to debate, and Whaley is counting on trailblazing right past him as the first woman elected governor of Ohio. Trouble is, nobody outside of southwest Ohio knows who either of them are or is paying attention to their intraparty dance.

Ohio’s open U.S. Senate race has gained notoriety for its imploding cast of characters — a bunch of Republican millionaires masquerading as white-grievance peddling imposters. The rivals trash each other for not being true acolytes of a serial liar and loser who tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the U.S. Capitol. Go figure. They seem determined to stoop to the lowest common denominator in their bid to make ugly appealing. But their collective GOP approach has been cringeworthy to many Ohioans — which undoubtedly pleases Congressman Tim Ryan, the frontrunner Democrat angling to replace the can’t-retire-fast-enough incumbent, Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Candidates for down ballot state legislative races often struggle to gain local traction and interest when high profile campaigns overshadow everything. So plenty of heads turned in Ohio recently when a candidate for an otherwise obscure state rep position generated sweeping press coverage and national attention. Didn’t see that twist coming, right? But the candidate who threw his hat in the ring for a seat in the Ohio House was also the lead plaintiff in a landmark same-sex marriage case. That made his campaign announcement headline news on CNN, every broadcast network, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post and other media heavyweights. 

The overwhelming response to Jim Obergefell’s bid to represent the Ohio House 89th District, covering Erie and Ottawa counties along the lakeshore, immediately set his campaign for legislative office apart. The soft-spoken Sandusky native was clearly buoyed by the deluge of positive feedback he received that, he confided, was “magnified exponentially” in the days after his decision to run became official. 

This campaign will be one to watch as a sort of microcosm of the prevailing political environment between polar opposite candidates with vastly different visions of public service. Obergefell, whose persistent activism led to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, will confront a one-term Republican and rising right-wing star with a voting record to match. D.J. Swearingen did not respond to phone and email entreaties to comment about his opponent or the race.

Obergefell is not naïve about what he may face in such a matchup. “Yeah, this has the potential to be ugly and painful, but I’ve been through ugliness and pain before, and it didn’t stop me then and won’t stop me now. I will point out our policy differences. I will point out his legislative record and how I would do things differently. That’s all I can do.”

The “culture of corruption” in Columbus under Republican rule has had “far-ranging effects on the people of this state,” he added. The Democrat said he is driven to help root out the entrenched crookedness at the Statehouse, that impacts the pocketbooks and quality of life of Ohioans, and to give voters “a legislature filled with representatives who have integrity.” 

Obergefell acknowledged the campaign advantages his national prominence may bring but is adamant about being laser-focused on the people in his district and the issues they care about. “I’m about more than just marriage equality. I’m not just an LGBTQ+ activist. I’m running because I want to do the right thing for everyone. That, in essence, is the heart of why I ended up at the Supreme Court,” he told me. “Same-sex couples deserved to be treated just like everyone else. They deserved the same things as everyone else. And that’s what I will do for the people of my district.”

Could be interesting. Pass the popcorn.



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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.