Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor won’t become the first woman to serve as governor if she outlasts three other Republican candidates and the Democrat who advances to the November general election.
But she could become the first woman elected to the state’s highest office. Nancy Hollister transitioned from lieutenant governor to governor for less than two weeks after former Gov. George Voinovich was sworn into office to the U.S. Senate and ahead of Gov. Bob Taft’s swearing in ceremony.
“I am committed to taking Ohio to the next step, taking Ohio to the next level,” Taylor said in an exclusive Journal-News interview during her visit to Middletown on Wednesday.
The 65th lieutenant governor of Ohio touts the nearly 460,000 jobs created in the private sector since she and Gov. John Kasich has been in office, as well as increasing the rainy-day fund to $2 billion “and eliminating taxes for nearly every small business in the state.”
“Now I think the next governor’s primary responsibility is to position Ohio for our future,” said Taylor.
But if her 6-½ years as Ohio’s second in command will give her a leg up won’t be known until the May 8, 2018 primary election when she’ll face off with known Republican candidates, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci. Announced Democratic Party gubernatorial candidates include, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former state representative Connie Pillich, former Congresswoman Betty Sutton, Ohio Sen. Joe Schiavoni and former Wayne County Commissioner Dave Kiefer.
“I think that Mary Taylor is positioned for the governor’s race in a way that gives her certain advantages as well as disadvantages,” said Miami University Regionals political science professor John Forren.
Her biggest advantage, he said, is her long service in state-level Republican politics. In 2006 — a year where Democrats nearly swept all statewide races — she was the only Republican to win, besting Barbara Sykes for state auditor.
“Over the years, she has performed as a good soldier for the Republican Party in the state — and along the way, she has built up a lot of goodwill within the party, among local party officials and local officeholders,” Forren said. “That will come in handy not only in the primary season. She has a lot of favors that she can call in.”
Another advantage is her connection to Kasich, who is a popular governor, but Mark C. Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, while that may be also be “her biggest liability.”
“Having a close connection to Gov. Kasich should help her with fundraising and organization throughout the state,” he said. “However, we saw in 2016 that Donald Trump was able to win in Ohio without direct help from Kasich.”
In fact, Smith said if there is any Kasich “baggage,” “it will only hurt Taylor.”
Given the size of Trump’s win in Ohio — an 8.13 percent margin of victory — Smith said it appears the GOP in Ohio is changing, though the core Republican electorate in a non-presidential election year is an unknown.
“You have to think about the extent to which the Ohio GOP might be changing,” he said, and how it will change in the 2018 primary and 2018 general election is an unknown.
Taylor’s stiffest competition could be in the primary election, which tend to draw the most partisan supporters in either major party.
“Primary electorates are quite different from general election electorates,” Smith said. “What does the core Republican electorate in Ohio look like in 2018? We don’t know the answer to that question, but the answer will likely drive the gubernatorial campaign.
Though her name has appeared multiple times on a statewide ballot, and Forren said she’s “still largely unknown to many Ohioans.”
“Her service has been relatively low-profile, especially as compared to some of her potential 2018 competitors within the Republican Party,” he said.
She’ll also be running against Republicans with a larger public profile in DeWine and Husted, and who have larger campaign finance dollars at their disposal. Both DeWine and Husted have $2.5 million in their campaign coffers as of the last campaign finance report filing deadline in January.
Taylor announced her candidacy for governor near the end of February, and her last campaign contribution for her own campaign was in 2008.
Smith said even without the sizable campaign finance cache for DeWine and Husted, they have other advantages.
“Mike DeWine has a long history in Ohio and has his own, formidable network. So, even though she may have a built-in connection to resources, there is no indication it would overcome DeWine’s history in the state,” he said. “Her other major opponent, John Husted, has the benefit of winning a statewide election recently and he is not connected to John Kasich.”
Though it’s still early for the 2018 general election, Forren said that election “is shaping up to be a very difficult year for Republicans at the ballot box.”
“Beyond the usual historical trends — the party of a first-term president often suffers considerable losses in the congressional mid-terms two years in — the Republican ‘brand’ is being battered right now by what is happening right now in Washington,” he said.
Taylor, who supported Trump this past November, said while she hasn’t seen any of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., dissipate in the president’s 130-plus days as the Commander-in-Chief, she “would like the folks in Washington to focus on what matters to Ohioans.”
That’s jobs, health care, education and restoring the flexibility back to the states “so that leaders can make decisions on how they’re going to implement programs that best service the needs of our citizens.”
“I really would like to get beyond all of the stuff we’re reading about and hearing about in the news and start focusing on the issues that really matter to Ohioans,” Taylor said.
Michael D. Pitman has been a reporter in southwest Ohio since 1999. He's covered local governments in Warren and Butler counties, as well as state and national issues. He currently covers the cities of Fairfield and Hamilton.