Why did the governor suddenly reverse course and announce an end to mandates he has aggressively defended for more than a year? The answer can be found in Ohio’s statehouse in Columbus, where DeWine’s fellow Republicans were wresting control of the matter from the governor’s grip.
For many, DeWine, 74, was one of the early heroes of the coronavirus fight. After his initial aggressive response, including lockdowns, curfews and closings, DeWine became a familiar face on the cable news circuit and Sunday morning shows. Despite a long career in various offices, it was a higher profile than the governor had ever enjoyed.
At the start of the pandemic, DeWine leaned heavily on his health director, Amy Acton. Their daily news conferences were a hit, inspiring “Wine with DeWine and Amy” memes and cartoons. But Acton soon paid a price: For many, she became the face of Ohio’s restrictions, and anti-lockdown protests eventually invaded her residential neighborhood. Acton resigned in June. Still admired by many, she was recruited to run as a Democrat for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Rob Portman, but eventually said “no thanks.”
On Wednesday, DeWine justified his decision to soon lift restrictions by crediting Ohioans, saying, “You’ve followed the protocols. You’ve done what we’ve asked. You’ve bravely fought this virus. And now, our cases are down, and we have a tested and proven weapon in the vaccine that all Ohioans 12 and over can utilize.”
He added, “Now, lifting these orders … does not mean we are all safe. … [But] there comes a time when individual responsibility must take over.” Many Ohioans, particularly in the GOP, had urged DeWine to let individual responsibility take over from the beginning, and the governor was well aware that Republicans, a majority in the statehouse, were out of patience.
On Wednesday, DeWine acknowledged that the pace of vaccinations is too slow, hence his lottery scheme. Details are still being worked out, but there will be five weekly drawings for a $1 million prize, open to all residents 18 years or older who have received at least one shot. Teenagers can sign up for a separate lottery to win one of five four-year scholarships with room and board to a public university in Ohio. The first drawings will be May 26.
In today’s big-spending government environment, DeWine blew past arguments of fiscal irresponsibility with an emotional appeal, saying, “The real waste at this point in the pandemic — when the vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it — is a life lost to covid-19.”
There was blowback, including from Republican Senate candidate and former state treasurer Josh Mandel, who tweeted, “RINO governor Mike DeWine is now doing an INSANE $5 million bribe to get more vaccines in Ohio. Here’s a better idea, Open Up Ohio and let our people get back to work! Ohioans don’t want handouts, we want FREEDOM!” Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, a Democrat, called the lottery “a grave misuse of money.”
DeWine faces the dilemma of many Republican governors today: His handling of the pandemic is more popular with Democrats than Republicans. He would probably cruise to reelection in next year’s general election, but danger lurks months earlier in his own party’s primary. Former congressman James B. Renacci has one foot in already, and some among the large Senate field could change course and instead seek to unseat DeWine, as Mandel’s caustic tweet hints.
After trailing in the polls in 2018, DeWine staged a comeback to win the governorship. As his vaccine lottery attests, he’s willing to gamble, and he’s betting that most Republicans will ultimately empathize with the difficult choices he faced. “It’s a heavy burden knowing the decisions you are making not only impact people’s lives, lots of times they are life and death decisions,” he said recently. “We certainly don’t get everything right.”
Whether all Ohioans get to weigh in on DeWine’s performance a year from November will depend on whether he wins over enough Republicans by next May. He’s ready to roll the dice — after he hands out a few million dollars in cash and prizes.