The Washington Post

In Ohio, fierce primary fight may hurt GOP’s chances for the fall

As the Republican presidential campaign turns to Super Tuesday this week, one contest looms more super than the rest: Ohio, a state with many of the same economic and electoral dynamics as Michigan but with much more at stake for Republicans.

Whereas Michigan is usually a hope-to state for Republicans in the general election, Ohio is a must-do. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Thus, the challenge for the GOP candidates is to win the primary next week without turning off voters who they’ll need to carry the state in the fall.

After a bruising couple of weeks in Michigan, where the fight between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum focused heavily on the kind of controversial social issues that tend to alienate independent voters, Republican officials are worried about the tenor and message of their campaign.

“We need to move on to having a nominee, so we can speak with one voice out there and begin drawing that contrast with Obama,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who most recently worked for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), a former presidential contender.

Instead, what is likely to happen is a week of unrelenting attacks from the candidates and their supporters akin to the one that just played out in Michigan — and Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere before that. If anything, the negativity is likely to increase with the full engagement of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was a minimal presence in Michigan.

Independent groups backing Romney, Santorum and Gingrich are already airing TV ads in the state. Santorum campaigned in Ohio Tuesday and Romney will be in Toledo Wednesday morning for an event, followed by another in Columbus.

Romney will confront many of the same challenges in Ohio that he faced in Michigan, without the benefit of his hometown connection.

Like Michigan, Ohio’s economy relies heavily on the auto industry, and Romney’s high-profile opposition of the government bailout of the industry is not likely to be received warmly by many voters. He supported an effort last year by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) to restrict public unions’ collective-bargaining rights — an effort that was overwhelmingly overturned in the fall by voters in this union-heavy state. And Romney’s courtship of religious voters by supporting, for instance, an antiabortion “personhood initiative,” risks alienating female voters.

“The number one thing is the auto bailout,” said Eric Kearney, a Democrat from Cincinnati and minority leader in the Ohio Senate. “Ohio is the second-largest auto producer in this country. We rely on that. It’s a substantial portion of our economy. The first thing Mitt Romney says, and he repeats it, is he is against the auto bailout. Those are Ohio jobs he’s talking about that he doesn’t want to retain. I don’t get what his strategy is.”

Perhaps more than anything else, however, Romney’s difficulty connecting with average Americans may hurt him in a state such as Ohio. Romney acknowledged on Tuesday that his gaffes — including mentioning his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs” — have not been helpful to his cause. Republicans in Ohio agreed.

“People are like, ‘Yeah, he’s probably going to win, but I really don’t like him, and I’m not going to vote for him,’ ” said a high-ranking Ohio Republican who requested anonymity to speak freely. “That’s the collective zeitgeist.”

Santorum, too, has built a body of statements and positions that threaten his appeal with moderates and independents. His personal opposition to contraception and recent statements criticizing President John F. Kennedy’s defense of church-state separation go against the views of a majority of voters in virtually all public polling.

The two leading candidates are approaching Ohio in markedly different ways. Although Santorum on Tuesday backed away from his criticism of Kennedy, he is not shying away from his embrace of culturally conservative stands, including opposing abortion and criticizing the government for curtailing religious freedom. His goal is to present a clear contrast with President Obama and convince voters that this makes him more, not less, electable in the fall.

Romney, in contrast, is trying to refocus his campaign on the economy, relying heavily on the methods that have served him well in past wins: a well-organized and well-financed ground operation, a heavy emphasis on early-voting recruitment, a growing list of endorsements, including from both establishment and tea-party leaders, and millions of dollars in TV advertisements.

“We always planned for a potentially long and drawn-out nominating process,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.

Even in the states where that strategy has worked, however, it has come at a cost. In Florida, for instance, Romney spent millions attacking Gingrich. He won the primary on Jan. 31, but his own popularity declined at the same time.

The risk of a similar outcome looms large in Ohio. And with each passing contest like it, he has less time to position himself for the general-election contest he hopes to wage against Obama.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
New Hampshire has voted. The Democrats debate on Thursday. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Philip Rucker and Robert Costa say...
For Trump, the victory here was sweet vindication, showing that his atypical campaign could prevail largely on the power of celebrity and saturation media coverage. But there was also potential for concern in Tuesday's outcome. Trump faces doubts about his discipline as a candidate and whether he can build his support beyond the levels he has shown in the polls.
The Post's John Wagner and Anne Gearan say...
Hillary Clinton, who was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses last week by the narrowest of margins, now finds herself struggling to right her once-formidable campaign against a self-described democratic socialist whom she has accused of selling pipe dreams to his supporters.
People have every right to be angry. But they're also hungry for solutions.
Hillary Clinton, in her New Hampshire primary night speech
I am going to be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.
Donald Trump, in his New Hampshire primary victory speech
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
See results from N.H.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.