Female governor candidates abound in Ohio, but can one win?

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Half of the candidates for governor in Ohio are women, but their chances of victory are looking far less than 50-50.

During Labor Day weekend, two seemingly more electable Democratic men drew attentions away from three women seeking the party’s nomination: former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, former state Rep. Connie Pillich and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

Then on Tuesday, Republicans’ lone female candidate, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, held a debate by herself. Two leading male contenders had declined to participate.

Experts disagree over how influential gender is in the race for Ohio’s top office a year after Hillary Clinton became the first female major-party presidential nominee.

But with men dominating front-runner predictions on both sides, female candidates’ backers are working harder than ever to get their messages across.

Ohio is one of only a handful of states that has never elected a female senator or governor, noted Kyle Kondik, with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“I do think it’s reasonable to wonder, given that and Hillary Clinton’s historically poor performance in the state (in 2016), how comfortable Ohio is electing a woman statewide, to a big statewide office,” Kondik said.

The state’s one female governor served during an 11-day gap between the terms of two men. Its sitting chief justice is also a woman.

David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, said male candidates discussed as front runners in both parties enjoy higher name recognition than their female counterparts and, in the case of Republicans Mike DeWine and Jon Husted, more money in the bank.

On the Democratic side, federal consumer finance chief Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and treasurer, and tabloid TV host Jerry Springer are generating attention before either has even entered the race. A male candidate, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, already is in the race.

“I think that it helps to be a woman in the Democratic Party in this era, but, with Sutton and Pillich and Whaley, their primary challenge is just getting known across the state,” Niven said. “The reason we’re talking about Cordray is none of these other Democrats has a statewide name.”

But for many closely following the Sutton, Pillich and Whaley campaigns, the comparative press attention Cordray and Springer got during Labor Day weekend stung.

“When I saw all the coverage that Springer got and that Cordray got for maybe getting in, when I saw the very little coverage that the women got for substantive announcements, it made me angry,” said Sandy Theis, executive director ProgressOhio, a liberal policy group. “Here we have a bunch of qualified women at a time when women are leading the resistance. The Women’s March (on Washington) is something I’ll never forget, and it was bipartisan.”

Sutton kicked off Labor Day weekend proposing creation of an Ohio Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. She ended it snagging the endorsement of popular U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo.

Whaley proposed making Ohio a “state of lifelong learners” by expanding Dayton’s successful City of Learners initiative statewide.

A week before, Taylor laid out her plan for reshaping Ohio’s tax system so it’s more “simple, fair and customer-focused.”

Michael Duchesne, her campaign spokesman, said Taylor went forward with her solo event Tuesday after Republican rival DeWine, the state attorney general, declined an Americans For Prosperity invitation and GOP Secretary of State Husted followed suit. U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, of Wadsworth, also is in that race.

Republican strategist Mark Weaver has advised high-performing female candidates, including former state auditor, attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Betty Montgomery and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. He said he believes Ohio voters would readily elect a female candidate they view as the most qualified.

“I am pleased to say that we are nearly past any negative fallout from a candidate’s gender,” he said.

Weaver acknowledged that traditional political advantages of name recognition, fundraising connections and party backing can sometimes still skew toward established male candidates. Yet he predicted that in 2018, gender politics will be “more a footnote than a headline.”

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