Skip links

Rating Change: Ohio Gubernatorial Race to Safe Republican


— The Ohio gubernatorial race moves from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

— A close poll does not mean the Ohio Senate race is a Toss-up.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change

Governor Old Rating New Rating
Mike DeWine (R-OH) Likely Republican Safe Republican

Checking in on Ohio a month after the primary

While Ohio’s strong shift right in presidential elections is recent, the dominance of the GOP in state-level races is not. In addition to holding the state Senate since the 1984 election and the state House for all but 2 years since the 1994 election, Republicans have now held the governorship for 28 of the last 32 years. We feel very confident that the GOP is going to extend that streak to 32 of 36 years, and we are moving that race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH), whose career in elective politics stretches back to the 1970s, is seeking a second term this year against former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D).

We came close to moving this race a month ago, in the aftermath of the Ohio primary, but we held off because DeWine only won his primary with a plurality (though a comfortable one at that). After the primary, we wrote the following: “Part of why DeWine had problems in his primary was because some Republicans didn’t like his aggressive, early moves against Covid. But those same actions likely endeared him to some Democrats, and it’s easy to imagine him getting some crossover support in the general election as the incumbent.”

We are seeing signs of both some soft Republican support for DeWine, but enough crossover support from Democrats to make up for it. On Thursday, USA Today Network Ohio/Suffolk University released a poll showing DeWine at 45%, but well ahead of Whaley at 30%. A conservative pastor, Niel Petersen, is running as an independent positioned to DeWine’s right, and he was at 11% in the poll. Generally speaking, independents poll better than they actually perform, which we suspect will be the case here (he is also identified in the poll as an independent, but he will not have that label on the actual ballot). DeWine got 20% of Democrats in the poll, a sign of some crossover appeal, and his overall approval was 56%.

We just don’t think there’s much reason to think DeWine will lose with that kind of approval rating.

As we suggested a month ago, the more interesting race in Ohio is likely to be the Senate contest, and the Senate portion of that poll showed author J.D. Vance (R) up just a couple of points, 42%-39%, on Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13). But we still see the race as Likely Republican. When a polling topline is close but there are a lot of undecideds, one has to always ask themselves: Which way should we expect the undecideds to break?

Joe Biden’s approval rating in the poll is 37%, which might actually be optimistic for Biden, given that he’s at about 40%-41% nationally, per polling averages: Biden’s share of the vote in Ohio in 2020, 45%, was about 6 points lower than his national share of the vote, but this poll shows him just 3%-4% worse than the national polling averages. Additionally, about half the respondents said that the statement “I want my vote in November to change the direction President Biden is leading the nation” comes closest to their view, compared to just roughly a quarter who said they wanted their vote to support the direction Biden is leading the country. The combination of Biden’s low approval and the far larger number who seemingly want to cast a vote against Biden as opposed to for him clearly gives Vance more room to grow, in our eyes (this statement probably applies to DeWine, too, but if this poll is an accurate snapshot of reality, DeWine is already ahead by double digits). Polling also often undershot GOP performance in Ohio and other midwestern states in not just 2016 and 2020, but also in 2018’s gubernatorial and Senate races.

We do think it’s fair to say that, just like in 2018, the Senate race may look different than the other statewide executive offices in Ohio. That year, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) won reelection in a relatively sleepy race, beating then-Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16) by a little under 7 points. Meanwhile, DeWine and 4 other Republicans won the statewide executive offices (governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, and treasurer) by margins ranging from roughly 3-6 points. Given that 2018 was a Democratic-leaning national environment and that 2022 is shaping up to be a Republican-leaning environment — and that all the Republicans running for those 5 offices (including DeWine) are now incumbents seeking second terms in their current offices — one would expect them all to do better this time. Meanwhile, the Senate race may very well be closer than the other statewide, non-judicial races, but Ryan, unlike Brown, is not an incumbent, and the same caveat about the changed environment also obviously applies to the Senate race as well.

Ryan is running a Brown-esque economically populist race, hitting Vance for his many ponderous past comments. Remember, to the extent that Vance was known prior to this campaign, it was in his role as an author/commentator, and commentators sometimes say things that can later be problematic in campaigns — this is why you’ll never see anyone at the Crystal Ball run for office! But Vance can easily tie Ryan to Biden and the national Democratic Party, which is likely more important in a year like this. The Suffolk poll does suggest Vance has some work to do improving his image following a bruising primary (his favorability was 35% favorable/38% unfavorable).

Another thing that separates Brown from Ryan is that we doubt the latter can staunch the bleeding for Democrats in outstate Ohio as well as Brown has in his recent campaigns. Map 1 re-prints a map we published prior to the 2020 election looking at some recent statewide elections in Ohio by the state’s current congressional districts; the 2020 presidential results were largely similar, with Trump doing a little better in some districts and a little worse in others while maintaining an overall 8-point advantage statewide.

Map 1: Selected recent Ohio elections by 2010s congressional districts

Notice that Brown, in his 2018 victory, was able to get landslide, dark blue margins in the core Democratic districts while holding his own (as Barack Obama did in 2012) in the rural Republican seats. The Republican red is much darker on the Trump 2016 map (and, to some extent, on the DeWine 2018 map). This erosion hit Ryan, too: He only won about 7.5 points in his 2020 reelection bid — OH-13 on the map, which was dismantled in redistricting — after winning by much bigger margins in his past reelection races.

Brown has run very strong races historically but he also has benefited from running in Democratic years: 2006, 2012, and 2018. If he was running against Vance this year, we probably would call the race a Toss-up with perhaps even a slight edge to the challenger. Likewise, if the Ryan-Vance race was happening with a Republican in the White House, we’d probably call it a Toss-up as well.

But this race is happening with an unpopular Democrat in the White House in a state trending away from Democrats. We need to see a whole lot more before we would consider the Ohio Senate race to be truly vulnerable to a Democratic takeover.

Meanwhile, we don’t expect DeWine to have much trouble as he seeks to extend the GOP’s statehouse dominance.