FAIRFIELD, Ohio—The Butler County Republican Party headquarters, hidden behind a Party City store, features at least two photographs of George W. Bush, an artifact from former House Speaker John Boehner’s days as a state representative, a “Make America Great Again” banner, and a cardboard cutout of President Trump.
But there was no trace of Gov. John Kasich as his two-time running mate, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, pitched a dozen Republican activists last week on the idea that she is “the most conservative” candidate in the race for governor.
Kasich’s legacy looms over the four-person Republican race to replace him, but so far the candidates are echoing Trump, in a pivot alongside the state and national party.
“All four campaigns are trying to feel their way through what the land mines are,” Kasich political adviser John Weaver said.
In the crowded race to succeed the term-limited governor, Taylor faces state Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, and Rep. Jim Renacci.
Kasich handily won the Ohio presidential primary in 2016 and was one of the last contenders in the nomination hunt. Trump went on to beat Hillary Clinton in the swing state by 8 points “without any governor support,” Trump recently reminded The Wall Street Journal.
Since then, Kasich has maintained a national presence and emerged as a chief intraparty agitator of the president.
But it’s a different picture now in Ohio, where Kasich’s Trump criticism, Medicaid expansion, and support for raising taxes on oil and tobacco are a sore point in Republican circles.
An internal poll conducted by the Taylor campaign of 602 Republican primary voters between Aug. 13 and 15—immediately following the Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrations—found Trump with an 83 percent approval rating compared to Kasich’s 57 percent. The same poll shows DeWine, a former senator, leading Taylor and Husted by double digits.
“There was a tremendous amount of support for Donald Trump because he represented challenging the status quo,” Taylor said in an interview in her Columbus campaign office. “My record is very clear in everything I’ve ever done: I challenge the status quo every day.”
Taylor is adamant that she is running as her own candidate. She is prioritizing ending the opioid crisis in the state. Last week, Taylor visited a crisis care center for drug-exposed newborns, where she disclosed that her family is undergoing emotional-connection therapy as her two sons suffer from addiction. The same day, she told party activists here she wants to shut off heroin trafficking “at the border” and “get the drug dealers off our streets.”
Taylor has broken with Kasich in the past. During this year’s state party-chair race, Taylor supported Jane Timken in her successful bid to unseat Matt Borges, a Trump critic who mobilized the state party to back Kasich during the presidential primary.
While Kasich’s advisers have reportedly urged the governor to rescind his support for Taylor, his lieutenant governor notes that Kasich “has been clear … a couple of times” that he’s endorsing her and that the two regularly talk by phone. Weaver confirmed that the governor is still “supporting Mary,” but that “he thinks highly of” DeWine and Husted also “has served well.”
“This is not a contest between John Kasich and Donald Trump in the Republican primary,” Weaver said. “If it was, John Kasich trounced Donald Trump in the primary for president.”
Taylor’s opponents are already channeling the president more directly. Husted, a former state House speaker, launched his campaign by saying his “family would firmly fit in Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables,” in reference to the Democratic presidential nominee’s comments about Trump’s supporters.
Renacci is most publicly angling for support from those who catapulted Trump to the White House. In a recent interview in Washington, Renacci said he’s “hoping that people who supported Trump support the idea that we need to put somebody other than a career politician into the governor’s seat.”
Trump himself hasn’t weighed in on the race. But Vice President Mike Pence touted Renacci during an official event in Cleveland in June, and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski headlined a Renacci fundraiser in July. Meanwhile, grassroots groups like Citizens for Trump and Bikers for Trump have endorsed Renacci.
Renacci’s relationship is frostier with Kasich. Renacci said that while he has “a lot of respect for Governor Kasich, I disagree with a lot of the policies, especially when it comes to Medicaid expansion.”
Taylor similarly told activists she thought Medicaid expansion was “not sustainable and it cannot be continued.” Taylor, who until recently was also the state’s insurance director, told National Journal she shared her concerns about expansion with Kasich when he decided to sign on to the federal law’s subsidies and requirements.
“He’s going to be known as the governor that brought jobs back to Ohio, worked hard to improve education, dug us out of a deficit,” said Ohio-based GOP consultant Bob Kish. But, he added, “next to all the great things he did, there’s going to be this asterisk next to the fact that he continued to fight for Obamacare and that … he’s been combative towards [Trump]. … That’s kind of his legacy.”