Less is more as anti-establishment Republican candidates take on Ohio
The Ohio primaries are already underway. Incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine is facing three Republican opponents — two of whom have gained significant support from the right. Political analysts say preferences within the Republican base in Ohio are shifting along with the political landscape in the state.
It was early Sunday morning at Connection Point Church in New Richmond — just outside Cincinnati.
Inside, standing at the stage was Joe Blystone. He didn't look like the average politician: he had his cowboy hat on, sporting a white beard and was telling voters why he’s running for Ohio governor.
As he boasted of what he would do if elected and condemned the left's “heinous woke ideology," some people applauded and nodded in agreement.
People like Pete Wolfer — a Clermont County resident — said he’s become disillusioned with establishment Republicans.
“It's almost like there's people that look at [the] McCains, Romneys, Bushes are really no different than the Clintons or the Obamas…they're all part of on a national level…let's just call it a uni-party,” Wolfer said.
Robert Wooten — the Pastor at the church — said a lot of conservative voters seem to be attracted to Blystone because he's never been in office.
“I think there's just that outsider kind of thing that people are attracted to,” Wooten said. “It’s less political, but more about who they are as a person.”
Both Wooten and Wolfer said they are supporting Blystone, even though another candidate, former Congressman Jim Renacci, has received a lot more media attention. Renacci was even endorsed in earlier this year in Clermont County — where New Richmond is located.
Blystone is a farmer and businessman from Canal Winchester. He calls himself a "constitutional conservative."
He’s promising to make Ohio a sanctuary state for gun rights, reject government vaccine mandates and also ban what he calls the indoctrination of children at public schools over issues of race and gender.
Renacci is also embracing similar positions as Blystone, and so is another Republican candidate, former state legislator Ron Hood.
Both Renaci and Blystone are viewed as the more conservative candidates — which is appealing to some voters looking for something different.
A political shift within the GOP
David Niven teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati. He said people don’t have to look far to understand why some Grand Old Party voters want to dump DeWine.
“Fundamentally, DeWine's issue with some members of the Republican base is really just his response to COVID in the early weeks of the pandemic, when he took aggressive action to try and protect public health."
Early in the pandemic, Gov. DeWine prohibited spectators at the Arnold Classic, even though the state hadn't confirmed a case of COVID-19 yet. In the following days he issued stay-at-home orders and ordered restaurants and bars to close.
Many Republicans found the governor's actions to be an overreach of his powers though, to the point were Ohio legislators passed a bill to limit the governor's power on health orders.
Niven said for years, Ohio has been a sure bet for the polite, country club Republican candidates like DeWine, but preferences among voters are changing.
"Ohio is catching up with the rest of the nation in terms of the Republican preference for somebody who will run for a government position by running against the government," Niven said. "And an orientation where the things that would be qualifications for office are largely viewed as disqualifying."
DeWine has courted the Republican base in Ohio. He’s signed the Heartbeat Bill, stand your ground laws and most recently the permit-less concealed carry law.
But candidates like Renacci are still critical over the governors loyalty to the Republican base, he even calls him a RINO — a Republican in name only.
"He runs our state like he's a Liberal Democrat, he's violated every single on of our basic principles," Renacci said in March at a town hall at Cedarville University.
Now, many Republicans are looking for charismatic outsiders who promise to deliver a new wave of energy like Donald Trump did in 2016.
So candidates like Blystone boast of their inexperience in government, saying they’re fighting inherently flawed politicians.
“People want the country back where we grew up and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So they're looking beyond politicians because we know these people will lie, cheat and steal to keep their positions.” Blystone said.
Blystone, said the system is flawed, too.
"We're fed up with the political system as it's been run for decades, not just not just this administration or the last one. This has been going on for a long time and we have to be involved." Blystone said.
Back in February, a poll from Emerson College showed about a third of likely GOP primary voters were supporting DeWine. Blystone had 20%, and Jim Renacci had 9%.
Analysts expect Blystone and Renacci to split the anti-DeWine vote. But Niven said DeWine may be the last of the old school Republicans to win the state.
“We're still witnessing the last gasps of hanging on against what's clearly the future of the party,” Niven said.
Even if DeWine wins the primary – comfortably – Ohio is likely to see more Republican candidates boasting that they’re the un-incumbents and flashing their outsider credentials.
Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.