Republican challengers target DeWine in Ohio governor's race
When Mike DeWine first took office as governor in 2019, he focused his attention on things like early childhood development, funding for additional school services, and water quality.
But in March 2020 his term changed dramatically when the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in Ohio.
As COVID-19 began to spread, DeWine immediately put in place health orders to shut down businesses and schools, and implement social distancing requirements.
"It was my responsibility as governor to take the actions that needed to be taken. I think if you looked at how Ohio approached the pandemic and how other states approach the pandemic, I believe that we had a proper balance between public safety and also allowing people to make their livelihoods," DeWine said.
Though more than 38,000 Ohioans have died of COVID-19, the state currently ranks 23rd in COVID-19 deaths per capita and 40th in the country in COVID-19 cases per capita.
Candidates challenge DeWine's COVID-19 response
Former Congressman Jim Renacci, a Republican candidate for governor, is a vocal critic of DeWine's health orders and said DeWine went too far in shutting things down.
"Look, we did have a health care crisis. There is no doubt about it. But at the same time, we had an economic crisis. And when you're a leader, you have to judge all of those issues and you have to make decisions for everybody," Renacci said.
Renacci has said the health orders that closed some businesses and allowed others to remain open – such as big box stores – were uneven. He also slammed DeWine for carrying out a statewide mask mandate.
"When did we start taking away these rights? That's the real issue that I'm hearing as I travel around Ohio. And that's the concern I have too," said Renacci. "So as governor, again, these are decisions. These should be individual choice decisions."
While Ohio was one of the first states to shut down businesses early in the pandemic, it was also one of the first to start opening businesses back up in May 2020. DeWine says he doesn't want to downplay the tragedies of the pandemic, but adds their plan positioned Ohio for the future.
"I think if you look at what's happened since we got vaccination, for example, and everyone had the opportunity to be vaccinated, if you look at how we're moving forward, we're moving forward exceedingly well," DeWine said.
Policies after the pandemic
In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio General Assembly proposed and implemented policy changes that limit the authority of the governor, such as ordering a mask mandate. Measures that restrict vaccine mandates for public and private sectors have also been discussed.
On the topic of vaccine mandates, Renacci said he supports private businesses creating their own policies but emphasizes that exemptions must be allowed.
DeWine has said government should neither prevent employers from enacting safety protocols nor should it require employers to mandate vaccine decisions.
Farmer and businessman Joe Blystone, a Republican candidate for governor, did not return a request for an interview but said in a previous interview that DeWine's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic was a main reason he joined the race.
"And we saw – 'You cover your face up. You stay away from people. Don't send your kids to school. Don't go to church.' Our rights were severely stomped on, and I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Blystone said.
Former state representative Ron Hood rounds out the list of candidates running for the Republican nomination. He did not respond to a request for comment but – in his low-profile campaign of speaking engagements, social media, and podcasts – he’s been sharply critical of DeWine’s COVID policies.
Impact on the economy
Ohio's economy has been on a roller coaster in the last four years, as with every other state responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But DeWine said Ohio is making a comeback because of a balanced approach his administration took during the early months.
"When the pandemic started, we cut spending. When the pandemic started, we froze hiring at the state level, state employees. As a result of those prudent, conservative actions that we took. We have come out of this," DeWine said.
Ohio's unemployment rate hit a four-decade high of 16.8% in April 2020 when businesses were temporarily shut down or limited. Those numbers started to drop once restrictions were lifted and Ohio's unemployment rate is now at 4.1%.
Renacci panned DeWine's response to the pandemic, saying the decisions hurt businesses. He noted the amount of jobs that have been lost during DeWine's time in office.
While unemployment is low, the amount of people employed in Ohio now compared to the first month DeWine took office is down by 164,200 jobs.
Renacci went further in saying Ohio spends too much money and needs to change its tax structure.
"We are a state that is failing. And one of the reasons we're failing is we're not changing anything. This governor continues to run policies in the 20th century when we're in the 21st century," said Renacci.
Candidates tout business credentials
Renacci ran a car dealership, operated a nursing home, and helmed other businesses before running for U.S. Congress in 2010. He said he wants Ohio to transition to a consumption tax.
"So my plan is to look just like I've done in many of the successful businesses run. Let's get our spending in line. Let's get our tax system to a consumption tax like the top ten states in our country have. And let's look at ways that we can get rid of some of this waste," Renacci said.
Renacci said Ohio needs to spend less and reform its taxation, not only to draw more businesses to Ohio but also more workers, in a state that is behind many others in population growth.
Blystone said that Ohio needs an outsider as governor.
"Well, what I think is being a businessman, basically, I'm a common sense guy. I don't spend more money than I have because obviously that's bad business and it's just totally opposite of what the state, what the government is," said Blystone.
DeWine trumpets big projects
The new Intel project has become a key factor in Ohio's economic future. DeWine is touting the $20 billion project as proof that Ohio is "on the move."
"We are on the move because we've kept taxes down. We are on the move because the regulation is a good regulatory climate. And we're on the move because of all the other great assets that we have," said DeWine. "We're seeing companies come off the east coast and the west coast. They're looking to expand, and they're looking to the heartland, and Ohio is in a great position to compete."
Renacci has questioned the deal Ohio made with Intel. He called it "smoke and mirrors" because of the more than $2 billion in incentives the state offered Intel for the computer chip-making complex.
A debate with the Republican gubernatorial candidates in March was canceled after DeWine declined the invitation and other candidates subsequently dropped out.
The race for the Republican nomination will be decided in the May 3 primary, for which early voting is already under way.