ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast.
This week we are starting to look at key races around the country as part of our expanded coverage of the midterm elections. Our guests are Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times; Kelly O’Donnell, White House and Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News, and an Ohio native; and from Ohio we’re joined by Mike Thompson of WOSU Public Media.
Let’s turn to the political map in the battleground state of Ohio, which is important every year because it’s a swing state and a big slice of the industrial Midwest. In the last presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by eight percentage points. President Barack Obama won in 2012 and 2008 in Ohio. The Ohio political scene these days is pretty much a microcosm of what’s happening nationally. You have GOP tensions about President Trump and Democrats looking to return to power. Current Ohio Governor Republican John Kasich made an unsuccessful bid for president in 2016 – you might remember that – and he has been outspoken on gun policy reform and about the Affordable Care Act, where Kasich has embraced the expansion of Medicaid in his state. Now his term as governor is up due to term limits, and the race to replace him is between current Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and former Obama administration official and former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. That race is a statistical tie based on the latest polls.
Mike, so – Mike Thompson, great to have you with us. What does the governor’s race, a tight one, a narrow race, tell us about the state of Ohio politics? What’s going on in your state? What’s driving this race?
MIKE THOMPSON: It’s just very divided. I mean, they are two well-known politicians. Both have held statewide office before, Mike DeWine a little longer, a little well-known, a little better-financed at the start of this race, but Richard Cordray has caught up. He’s run a very good campaign. And it’s just indicative of the divided nature of Ohio and the divided nature of the country that these two candidates are literally tied right now, even accounting for a margin of error. They are tied right now with a month to go before the election.
MR. COSTA: Mike Thompson, when you think about Cordray’s message, he’s a progressive. He worked on consumer protection in the federal government under President Obama. When you’re out there on the road talking to voters, watching Cordray up close, do you see a rise of the progressive activist, the progressive voter among Democrats in Ohio compared to the usual Rust Belt union voter in that state?
MR. THOMPSON: No, I think Richard Cordray is – you know, he’s a progressive, but he’s also – he’s playing sort of the centrist role. He’s not too far out there on the left. You know he supports – he’s modified his gun stance somewhat. He has – he has been endorsed by the NRA in the past, but he now says that he supports stronger background checks, bans on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines. So that’s an indication that, you know, he’s drifted a little bit to the left, but he’s still pretty centrist. He is running on his work with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, saying he got billions of dollars back for American taxpayers. So he’s running on that and running on his experience. He’s running kind of the – he’s embracing his inner nerddom. He’s kind of an awkward guy, five-time deputy – Jeopardy! champion, a little stiff on the stump, and he’s embraced that in his campaign. But he’s still aggressively going after Mike DeWine.
MR. COSTA: Carl Hulse, you covered Mike DeWine in the U.S. Senate. What does it tell us that he’s back, that he’s the standard-bearer for the Republican Party in Ohio?
CARL HULSE: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that it’s two guys with such Washington resumes in that Ohio race. You know, Mike DeWine positioned himself here as a moderate and he always was trying to cut a deal in the middle. He was part of the famous Gang of 14 that cut the judicial deal, and it hurt him, and I think that contributed to his being out of Washington, so to speak. You know, can a guy like that sort of pop up in this new environment and be successful? I’m not sure because, you know, you remember him; he’s not a very forceful presence. And I’m really interested to see in this era of Trump does a person like Mike DeWine, who had a whole different reputation in Washington, in Ohio, where the Trump support among the Trump people is high, whether he can succeed there. Just something to watch.
KELLY O’DONNELL: Well, and candidates matter so much. If you look at the U.S. Senate race, you’ve got Sherrod Brown and Jim Renacci, and Sherrod Brown is very much a star of the progressive movement. He’s doing very well in that race, and then you’ve got the governor’s race being so tight. And one of the big questions would be, does Sherrod Brown help a Richard Cordray in the final analysis? I think it’s interesting that you always have go to back to the nature of the candidates. And Sherrod Brown, who has done very well, but you also have a state where Rob Portman was reelected with a big margin. So voters in Ohio, what you’ve got that I think is so interesting, you’ve got urban centers where you have strong Democratic ties; you’ve got the suburban voter, who we’re all watching so carefully; and you have the rural voter. The state’s always been sort of cut in half in terms of having a Democratic stronghold as well as a Republican one. That’s why it goes back and forth election by election and why it’s always worth watching. And what I’m struck by is the fact that the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race might give us different outcomes.
MR. HULSE: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because we’ve always been concerned and focused on the 10 red-state Democrats we say, the 10 Democrats up for reelection in states won by Trump. But in the states that I call, along with other people, the Trump-Obama states – which is, like, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, states that Trump won but Obama won – the Democratic Senate candidates are in pretty good shape it seems like. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, you know, you don’t even hear much about that race at all. So Ohio, there probably – there’s always going to be some sort of backlash in a state like Ohio, where Trump won and some people are probably thinking, well, we’re not going to let that happen.
MR. COSTA: Well, that point Carl made, Mike Thompson, about how Democrats running in states won by President Trump seem to have solid footing, that Sherrod Brown’s not in danger, Senator Casey in Pennsylvania doesn’t seem to be in danger. Is that, Mike Thompson, because of trade? You look at Sherrod Brown. He’s yanked back trade from President Trump. So has Senator Casey. I mean, they’re talking about trade in this kind of traditional, old-school Democratic way. Is that countering President Trump’s own message on trade, that trade war with China and all of that?
MR. THOMPSON: Well, Sherrod Brown has consistently been opposed to NAFTA since it – since its inception. He has been a strong anti-NAFTA candidate. And while he is progressive – a darling of the progressives, he also has appealed to the white working class, particularly in Northeast Ohio, the Youngstown area, the Cleveland area. Because of his stance on trade he’s got strong union support, strong working-class support. You know, all of his ads show him walking around factories. And it’s natural for him. And he has – he has sort of bridged that gap. He’s got the progressives in his corner, but he also has some of the Trump supporters in his corner as well, that may have voted for Donald Trump but also voted for Barack Obama. They’re going to go back to Sherrod Brown perhaps for this race. The polls show that. He’s got a 16- or 17-point lead. So it seems like he is getting both of those voters – the progressives and the white working-class voter.
MR. COSTA: Mike – Carl Hulse.
MR. HULSE: Well, when Trump started the tariffs and the trade war, no one was happier than Sherrod Brown. I mean, this was one issue where they were really simpatico on. You know, this has been a big thing his entire career.
MS. O’DONNELL: Yeah, he’s threading that needle that Mike points out about being able to be loved by progressives for a lot of his issues – especially on health care – and then also be very relevant and relatable for working Americans in Ohio who have had a really hard time over a couple of generations with the departure of jobs.
MR. COSTA: Speaking about jobs, Mike Thompson, how is the economy playing in Ohio? How are people talking about it? Because we see these job reports, seem pretty good for the Trump administration in Washington. But is that the reality in Ohio?
MR. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think the economy in Ohio is doing better. It’s not – the unemployment rate is a little bit higher than the national economy. There is still a pretty large
wage gap. A lot of – like, in Columbus here, there’s a large wage gap between, you know, college-educated professional types and there’s a lot of service jobs. We see that in other parts of the state. I think manufacturing is coming back a little. I think that the rural areas – you know, the farmers are hurt a little bit this year because of the tariffs. The soybean revenues are down. In particular a lot of farmers had planted soybean fields this year, but because of the tariffs and the trade war they’re seeing their revenues drop a bit this year. The farm bailout is helping a little to get them through this year. We’ll see what happens in future years.
But the economy here is strong. But the candidates aren’t running on the economy. Even, like, Mike DeWine and the Republicans are – they’re not really running on the strong economy, because I think that as well as the economy is doing here, it’s not doing good enough for many Ohioans.
MR. COSTA: Final round for this Ohio conversation. Start with Kelly O’Donnell. The way Ohio comes across to the country sometimes depends on who’s running for president from Ohio. You’ve covered Ohio Governor Kasich. Is he going to run against President Trump in 2020? And does he think he actually has a shot as he looks at it?
MS. O’DONNELL: I think he wants to be in the conversation for as long as possible, because it makes him relevant. And he is the kind of Republican that in any other cycle you’d say a two-term Ohio governor should be a person who would rise to the top of the pack. We saw what happened when he challenged Trump with a big, wide field of other candidates. It was tough. And Kasich tries to bring about a sort of sunnier disposition in terms of talking about politics, in more lofty tones – although he can have a bit of a cranky side as well, those of us who have covered him a lot. (Laughter.) But also, he’s someone who is giving a middle-of-the-road position on guns. He was one of the governors who expanded Medicaid during the health care era. He has a story that might appeal a bit across the aisle. But he’s got to live in a Republican primary. And going against Donald Trump I think would be very formidable. But I think he wants to be in the conversation.
MR. COSTA: Another presidential question, this time for Carl Hulse. A little bit out of left field: Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio ran against Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, for – in the last round of leadership races. What do you make of Tim Ryan? He’s trying to make a name for himself nationally. Is he going to run for president, or run against Pelosi again?
MR. HULSE: I think that, you know, he’s keeping his options open for running against Pelosi. He’s one of these – (coughs) – excuse me – junior members who – and Delaney is running –
MR. COSTA: John Delaney of Maryland.
MR. HULSE: That, you know, maybe think, wow, this is wide open. I can get in there. And maybe I can make some noise. But he’s running as, you know, sort of the more traditional moderate, common-sense Democrat. I think Sherrod Brown, if he can win his Senate race, he’s somebody that has to be looked at in a presidential race, or as part of a ticket. He’s from the right place. He’s got the right message. He seems to be threading the needle on that race. And
I’ll say, at the beginning of this cycle Republican strategists were telling me: We’re going to get Sherrod Brown. We’re going to be very competitive there. And you don’t hear a word from them now.
MR. COSTA: And final question, Mike Thompson, when you think about the nomination of Federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, dominates Washington. But is it actually going to have an effect on the races in Ohio, or is it more about the economy and trade?
MR. THOMPSON: I think it further energizes Democrats. I mean, they’re pretty energized here as it is, and around the rest of the country as well. But Democrats here are very energized. I think the – if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, that will energize them even more. Republicans are getting more energized. Whether that’s because of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight or because that we’re just getting closer to the election and we’re seeing more and more ads on TV, more and more lawn signs in our neighborhoods, more door knocks from campaign workers. That could be boosting Republicans enthusiasm here in Ohio as well. Can that enthusiasm last from here until an election day? Now, early voting in Ohio starts next week. So we’ll start to see how that enthusiasm is transferring into votes. Democrats will be really strong on early voting. The key will be are Republicans motivated to get out for early voting because of the Kavanaugh fight, which will be fresh in their memories as they go to their early voting places next week?
MR. COSTA: Red wave or blue wave washing up in Columbus, Ohio. We’ll have to have you back, Mike, to talk about that. (Laughter.) Mike Thompson, thank you very much. Carl Hulse, thank you. Kelly O’Donnell. Great reporters all around. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen on the Apple podcast app or watch us online or listen online. And while you’re there, check out the video of the people’s debate in Virginia this week – the U.S. senatorial debate between Democrat Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Corey Stewart. And be sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.