Ohio Democrats play for women’s vote in gubernatorial race

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TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Democrats selecting their nominee for governor in Ohio can choose between a two-woman ticket and a male-led ticket endorsed by feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

Nan Whaley, former mayor of Dayton, is seeking to be the state’s first elected governor. She confronts former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, whose running mate earned Steinem’s respect when she spoke publicly about having an abortion after she was raped in the military.

Whaley and Cranley are pushing to bolster support among women voters not only for the May 3 primary, but also for the November general election, which promises to be a fight for either Democrat. Ohio, which has leaned further to the right under the influence of former President Donald Trump, last elected a Democrat for governor 15 years ago.

For Democrats, winning the female vote by a wide margin has become imperative to make up for their losses with male voters. In recent elections, Republican candidates, whether it’s Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine or Trump, have performed well with female voters, allowing them to win the state.


Whaley believes the party’s choice of candidates is one of the main reasons Democrats have struggled, even though Ohio has long been nearly divided politically. As of 2020, it had been a presidential lead state for more than half a century.

“For the last three decades, we have run a moderate white man for governor of Ohio,” Whaley said in a debate last week. “We have never tried anything different.”

The party, he said, has done better with female voters in states that have nominated women for leadership positions. Three of the top four elected officials in neighboring Michigan are Democratic women, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, one of nine female governors, the highest record.

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“We can try to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results as Democrats … or we can try something new and run a woman for governor,” Whaley said.

Cranley has described Ohio as “backsliding” on women’s issues. She wants to create a permanent commission focused on promoting gender equity and believes it is time to formally recognize the Equal Rights Amendment.

“Even common sense Ohio bills that would help women and girls are stalled in the state Legislature,” he said.

The Ohio Democratic Party has realigned its leadership ahead of this year’s election with the intention of being more gender and race inclusive as it seeks to win votes among college-educated women who are driving Democratic gains in the suburbs. .

The party had been expected to back Whaley, the pick of Ohio’s highest-ranking Democrat, US Senator Sherrod Brown, until a group of Cranley supporters objected.

In the end, Democrats decided to remain neutral as Cranley’s supporters complained that he would be a stronger candidate against DeWine, who is in a strong position to win a four-way Republican primary.

For many women in the party, the decision stung. Whaley and two other female candidates dropped out of their gubernatorial bids four years ago to pave the way for Democrat Richard Cordray, who served as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the Obama administration. Cordray lost the general election to DeWine.

Whaley and Cranley, who developed a friendship while running their cities, have remained mostly cordial, focusing their attention on DeWine and the Republicans who have controlled the state for more than a decade.

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As the feud has intensified, Whaley has sought to draw a distinction between the two over abortion rights. He often points out that he has been in favor of abortion rights throughout his career, while Cranley only announced that he supported abortion rights before entering the race.

Cranley, a Roman Catholic, said he was against abortion until he and his wife had to make their own fertility decisions when they were starting a family. “It was obvious to me what my wife was already telling me, that the government had no role in reproductive decisions,” he said.

Cranley plans a forum later this week hosted by the state’s leading abortion rights attorney, Jessie Hill.

In his first term, DeWine signed several measures limiting abortions, including one banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, at the time one of the strictest restrictions in the nation. In campaign ads, DeWine has described himself as “the most pro-life governor in Ohio history.”

Whaley and Cranley have said they would veto any new restrictions on abortion that come their way.

Among Ohio voters in the 2020 presidential election, a slim majority — 54% — said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to AP Votecast, a survey of the electorate. About 8 in 10 Democratic voters said so.

Steinem, a native of Toledo, announced his endorsement the day Cranley selected state Sen. Teresa Fedor as his running mate. Steinem and Fedor, also from Toledo, formed a bond after Fedor spoke in 2015 in the Ohio House of Representatives about abortion.

In his endorsement, Steinem said Fedor has work to do “to help Ohioans who are trafficked, who deserve adequately funded public schools, and who are denied the democracy that begins with the right to make decisions about our own bodies”.

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Whaley’s running mate, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Cheryl Stephens, is a relative unknown in state politics. As a black woman, Stephens adds racial diversity to the ticket, which could be important to the Democratic base.

Whaley also has the backing of some powerful women’s groups, including EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, Matriots PAC and Pro-Choice Ohio. The executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio noted Whaley’s unwavering support as mayor for the Dayton abortion clinic, which is in continual jeopardy.

However, Ohio has proven to be an especially difficult place for female candidates. Only four from each party have won non-judicial races statewide in the last 40 years.

No woman has been elected Governor of Ohio or earned a major party nomination for the office. However, the state once had a female governor, albeit for 11 days. Republican Nancy Hollister took office in 1998 after the then governor. George Voinovich was elected to the Senate.

Overall, Ohio lags behind most states when it comes to electing women to the state legislature and local offices, said Barbara Palmer, executive director of the Ohio Center for Women and Politics at the Baldwin-Wallace University.

That means neither party has many women to choose from when it comes to fielding female candidates for the highest offices in the state, she said.

“It comes down to we really didn’t recruit a good farm crew,” Palmer said. “When you look up, there just aren’t that many women.”

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Smyth reported from Columbus.