No state this year does Republican dysfunction like Ohio.
The popular Republican Gov. John Kasich stiffed Donald Trump at the home-state convention and now regularly dismisses him on Twitter. Trump has threatened to retaliate by raising money to squash Kasich’s future ambitions.
The state’s Republican Sen. Rob Portman, running for re-election, has stuck with his endorsement of the party’s nominee but has yet to appear in public with him. Instead, Portman has upbraided Trump repeatedly, and his campaign recently sent aides to search for potential supporters at Hillary Clinton rallies.
All that would be merely familial squabbling if not for Ohio’s frequent role as the decider in presidential contests. It is a must-win state for Trump; a loss here would almost certainly deny him the presidency and secure the White House for Clinton.
Clinton is going after Republican-leaning suburbanites put off by Trump’s demeanor and is trying to persuade blue-collar white voters that Trump is a hypocrite on trade and business issues.
Trump has set his sights on those blue-collar Democrats with a campaign heavy on expressions of grievance for decades of manufacturing declines. He’s also courting Republicans eager for change after two Democratic White House terms.
“Both campaigns are probably spending time watching some of their traditional voters run away and watching others run to them,” said Doug Preisse, a Columbus-based Kasich confidant who heads the Republican Party in Franklin County, which includes Columbus.
The most recent public polling has the race dead even in the state — but that survey was conducted weeks ago, during the Republican convention. Even Republicans suggest that Clinton has likely pulled ahead here, as she has in nearby industrial states and nationally since the end of her convention.
But few expect Ohio to deviate in November from its recent record of close contests.
“It’s winnable for both candidates. The question is who has the superior ground game and strategy,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, whose July poll had Clinton and Trump deadlocked at 44% each. “It’s going to be fought in hand-to-hand combat in a lot of these counties.”
Clinton is building on multiple winning streaks: former President Bill Clinton’s wins here in the 1990s, President Obama’s two general election wins, and her own primary victories in 2008 and this spring.
Her team has hundreds of workers in the state, and in her visit here Sunday, Clinton advertised more openings for organizers. The campaign is canvassing supporters and registering voters in communities across the state this weekend.
Trump’s campaign has been slower to form, a danger in a state where early ballots can be cast starting Oct. 12 — just a little more than two months away. The campaign’s new state director began work on June 23, well after Clinton’s chief strategist set up shop; only last week he was moving into an office in Columbus.
Traditionally, Democrats try to maximize the turnout in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is, and to boost African American turnout there and elsewhere. The suburbs of the “3 Cs” — Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland — have become another Democratic target, and were central to Obama’s victories. The former steel and coal towns of the eastern flank of the state also have been heavily Democratic.
For Republicans, traditional targets have included conservative suburban residents, chief among them married women, in the 3Cs — particularly outside of Cuyahoga County. Rural areas all over Ohio, but particularly in the western run from Cincinnati north to Toledo, also have been key to Republican victories.
This year’s nominees have scrambled those patterns.
Trump has strong appeal among the blue-collar whites in eastern Ohio who were once reliably Democratic. The Suffolk University poll found Trump beating Clinton 2-1 in southeastern Ohio, where many of those voters live.
In the usually Republican western part of the state, however, Trump’s standing was undermined because a substantial chunk of voters remained undecided.
Robert Paduchik, a veteran of George W. Bush’s successful Ohio campaigns who is running Trump’s effort, said the New York businessman “resonates with voters that traditional Republican candidates weren’t able to reach out to.”
“We anticipate there will be a lot of independent and Democratic voters that will be a part of this effort,” Paduchik said.
In his Monday appearance in Columbus, Trump’s message to those voters was that Clinton has dismissed the economic hardships facing residents of the nation’s manufacturing belt.
“The people in Ohio and the Rust Belt — and they call it the Rust Belt for a reason, because everything’s rusting and rotting — they lost your jobs,” he said.
“We’re going to have clean coal and we’re going to have steel and we’re going to make our products again,” Trump said later. “We are going to turn this state into a manufacturing behemoth. We’re going to bring jobs back.”
But for every blue-collar worker Trump secures, he risks turning off a larger swath of Ohioans offended by his rough rhetoric. Many of them are Kasich loyalists.
“Donald Trump comes into the state and reminds Ohio voters yet again that he’s temperamentally unfit to be president of the United States,” said Chris Wyant, the Clinton campaign manager and veteran of the Obama victories here. “He’s divisive and he puts out this rhetoric that a lot of Ohio voters reject.”
That argument was reinforced last week when former Ohio Atty. Gen. Betty Montgomery, a Republican, told the Columbus Dispatch that she could not vote for Trump. She said she was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” by his candidacy.
In her pitch to blue-collar Ohioans, Clinton casts Trump as a hypocrite who has not lived the “America first” propositions he now advocates. In a recent appearance in Columbus, she maligned Trump with a triple Ohio name drop.
“He says America first… He says it, but then everything he makes, he makes somewhere else,” she said. “He makes dress shirts in China, not Brooklyn, Ohio. He makes furniture in Turkey, not Cleveland, Ohio. He makes barware in Slovenia, not Jackson, Ohio. And he goes around saying he wants to put America first.”
That harsh verdict is one shared by a substantial segment of Republicans here. They are taking cues from Kasich, who has made his sentiments about Trump quite clear. Even as he declined to take part in the Cleveland convention, he held concurrent events in the city, as if to emphasize his absence from the gathering.
Kasich is the kind of candidate Ohio usually gravitates toward, and Trump is not.
“There aren’t a whole lot of bomb-throwers in Ohio statewide history,” he added.
Trump’s campaign insists that not even the last week, filled with bombast and serious repercussions, has lessened enthusiasm for the candidate.
“Occasionally the national media gets distracted by events outside of Ohio, but here on the ground, we remain laser-focused on bringing our message of change to Ohio voters,” said Paduchik. “The voters we are engaging with understand that Hillary Clinton represents a third Obama term.”
For Republicans outside Trump’s orbit, the hope is simply to survive an onslaught that already is filling television screens, bringing the party’s divisions into full view.
Jeff Rusnak, who ran Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign in Ohio, said that Clinton has attracted the vast majority of Sanders’ former supporters — helped out by Trump — and has consolidated the Democratic machine in Ohio.
His Republican friends, Rusnak said, are “torn and conflicted.”
Mostly, he said, “they can’t wait for this election to be over, and move on.”