Parsing the gains, losses in DeWine’s fundraising ahead of reelection bid

By: - February 8, 2022 4:00 am

File photo: Gov. Mike DeWine signed the $74 billion, two-year state budget. Source: the governor’s office.

Heading into 2018, Mike DeWine must’ve felt pretty good. The two-term state attorney general running for governor had just converted one of this biggest rivals, Secretary of State Jon Husted, into his running mate. Their combined campaign was sitting on more than $10 million. Meanwhile, his other Republican opponents were looking shaky. Try as she might — and she did try — Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor couldn’t distance herself enough from a Kasich administration GOP voters had grown to hate. In a matter of days, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci’s campaign would pick up sticks to launch an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.

Looking across the aisle, DeWine probably felt pretty good, too. In the midst of a blue wave midterm election, Democrats were rallying around Richard Cordray. He was fresh off of a stint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and while he was no political novice, Cordray had been out of electoral politics for the past eight years. His last race? He lost to DeWine.

Heading into 2022, the outlook isn’t so rosy. Conservatives soured on DeWine’s handling of COVID-19 almost immediately, and the bipartisan goodwill he earned early on has all but evaporated. Despite signing the so-called heartbeat bill and a born alive bill, some anti-abortion activists are withholding their support. DeWine’s commitment to “do something” in the wake of a mass shooting in Dayton was a muddled piece of legislation that never gained traction and raised the suspicion of gun rights groups. His plans for police reform after George Floyd’s murder have gone nowhere fast.

DeWine is certainly not the pariah Kasich eventually became, and the recent Intel announcement is a significant win at a significant moment. But it’s not great when criticizing your own party’s governor is an easy way to burnish your conservative credentials.

To paint a picture of the headwinds DeWine is facing the Capital Journal compared his campaign contributions at these two snapshot moments — first, on the cusp of his 2018 gubernatorial bid, and second, heading toward reelection.

In both cases the analysis started with all the contributions DeWine’s campaign reported in the prior year. To focus on how individual voters feel about the governor, any contributions from political action committees were filtered out. To zero in on voters in Ohio, contributions from out of state don’t appear on the map. Each contribution carries an individual’s address, so these donations were broken down by zip code. The idea being that these two maps might offer one view into the relative enthusiasm for DeWine’s candidacy — a crude version of Ohioans voting with their dollars.

DeWine’s campaign argued that comparing the committee’s fundraising reports in 2017 to 2021 isn’t apples-to-apples, because for much of the year in 2017 Husted was running separately, pursuing his own gubernatorial bid. This makes a significant difference in the combined committee’s final tally — Husted dropped $4.6 million into the campaign war chest as a lump sum. That contribution alone represented more than 40% of their cash on hand at the time. To ensure those dollars are reflected in the map, the same set of contributors — individuals living in Ohio — are included as well.

The first point to mention is the campaign’s consolidation in fundraising. The average contribution from this universe of donors was about $670 in 2017. In 2021, it nearly doubled to $1,217. Despite flagging performance outside the three Cs, the campaign has substantially increased its fundraising totals in some of their well-heeled suburban enclaves. In 2017, DeWine’s team cracked $100k in six zip codes; in 2021 they pushed that to eight. In both races, the biggest haul came from the same Cincinnati area zip code, but in 2021, the campaign saw its contributions more than double, to nearly $400,000. More than a dozen donors in that zip code effectively maxed out for his campaign.

The campaign also posted notable improvements in some of the state’s smaller cities. The region near Youngstown saw some areas rise and some fall, but on balance the trend was positive. Contributions from Dover basically doubled, and in the zip codes near Massillon and Canton donations quintupled.

But there are cracks evident as well. In Perrysburg, DeWine saw contributions cut in half. Across the river, a western Toledo a zip code that contributed more than $44,000 in 2017 didn’t even make it to $10,000. Fundraising in Chillicothe fell off a cliff and it was a similar story outside of Mansfield. DeWine’s camp raised about $37,000 in Lima for his first run. Last year the same three zip codes brought in less than $250. One of them didn’t contribute a penny.

DeWine and Husted have strong ties to the Dayton area, and the campaign posted big returns from nearby Kettering. The problem is the $123,520 they raised from that suburb’s two primary zip codes in 2021 is still only about half what they brought in last cycle. In 2017, one zip code alone surpassed last year’s mark by more than $15,000.

DeWine’s campaign offers a number of explanations for these shifts in fundraising. Two gubernatorial campaigns is of course more than one, and DeWine and Husted running against one another may inflate the 2017 figures somewhat. The campaign also noted that political spending is likely less of a priority for many households after two years coping with a pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that even as dollar figures in individual geographic areas saw big swings, those changes are relatively small in the context of the overall campaign. And when individual donors can give up to $13,704, one person can exert significant influence on their zip code’s totals. For all those gains and losses, the bottom line remains pretty similar: DeWine walked into 2018 with $10.5 million, and he’s walking into this year with $9.2 million.

Campaign Manager Brenton Temple is quick to accentuate the positives, arguing in an emailed statement that the recent, “record breaking campaign finance report reflects broad support from Ohioans all across the state.”

At the same time, DeWine’s latest filing presents a potentially uncomfortable reality. While the campaign touts bringing in more than $3.3 million in the last half of 2021, almost a third of that went toward retiring a $4 million loan DeWine previously made to his campaign.

“Over the last three years,” Temple said, “the DeWine Husted administration has passed record tax cuts, made historic investments in education, and landed the largest economic development project Ohio has ever seen. I have no doubt that we will have the requisite resources to tell this successful story.”

And regardless of how donations from individuals have changed this cycle, DeWine’s campaign holds a commanding cash advantage against the entirety of the field. On the Republican side of the race, DeWine is again facing off against Jim Renacci, as well as farmer Joe Blystone and former state Rep. Ron Hood. All three challengers are making a bid for the party’s most conservative voters, raising the very real possibility of splitting the field and easing DeWine’s path to the nomination.

The Clermont County Republican Party recently endorsed Jim Renacci over DeWine, but their pick for U.S. Senate, Bernie Moreno, has already bowed out of the race — citing the exact same concerns about diluting conservative voting power.

“After talking to President Trump we both agreed this race has too many Trump candidates and could cost the MAGA movement a conservative seat,” Moreno said in a statement.

On the Democratic side of the race Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor Jon Cranley are running for the nomination. DeWine’s nearly $10 million on hand dwarfs both campaign war chests put together.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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