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Redistricting mess forces Ohio to split primary, delay legislative races

Ohio’s redistricting debacle has cast a shadow over the state’s upcoming primary, in which several Republicans have used Trump and questionable debate tactics to grab the spotlight in the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Rob Portman.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A former Marine with experience as Ohio's treasurer and a best-selling author funded by a billionaire venture capitalist have grabbed most of the headlines in the lead-up to the Buckeye State's May primary election, but the continued legal battle over the state's electoral maps has forced a delay for state legislative races.

The 2022 primary was originally cast as an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to set up for a battle for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Rob Portman, who announced in January 2021 that he would not seek reelection for a third term, and to nominate party candidates for statehouse contests.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission had other ideas, however, as the 2020 census required a redrawing of the state's electoral maps that has taken longer than anyone anticipated, spawned numerous legal battles and required the Ohio Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of several proposed – and ultimately rejected – legislative maps.

A supposedly bipartisan venture, the commission has struggled to come up with a map that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, while Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has ultimately been the deciding vote in the high court's rejection of several maps.

O'Connor and several other justices ruled the maps proposed by the commission gave Republicans an unfair and unconstitutional advantage, and no suitable alternatives have been drawn as the May 3 election date creeps ever closer.

A decision from the high court on Thursday that rejected another proposed map guaranteed that state legislative races will not be on the ballot for the May primary.

A split ballot divided into two election days allows Ohioans to cast votes for the U.S. Senate race on the originally scheduled date, but the plan brings about its own problems.

David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said two primaries could drive down turnout.

"The bigger effect of splitting the primary is how few people are likely to show up and vote with just the state legislature on the ballot," Niven said in an interview.

According to the commission, the latest possible date for the state legislature primary is Aug. 2.

Regardless of which maps are eventually approved by the state's high court, Niven said it won't have a major impact on the Senate and gubernatorial elections.

"The maps were really drawn to almost guarantee [Republicans] a supermajority," he said. "If it ultimately produces a fair map, it doesn't mean Republicans won't win – it's still a Republican state – but it means they don't start out having won the election before the votes are cast."

Case Western Reserve University associate professor of political science Justin Buchler agreed with Niven regarding turnout, but also emphasized the confusion that could be caused by the redistricting process.

"The bigger problem is it creates issues for candidates who do not know the boundaries of their districts," he told Courthouse News, "and voters in indeterminate regions are likely to face confusion about who their candidates, and in some cases, incumbents are."

Arguably the most important race in the 2022 primary is the battle for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, which includes author J.D. Vance, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken and businessman Mike Gibbons.

While Timken has a wealth of experience as a party operative, Vance and Mandel have garnered the most attention, at least in part because of their brash behavior and willingness to provide critics with provocative quotes.

Mandel, a former Marine running on the tagline "Pro God, pro gun, pro Trump," has yet to receive an endorsement from the former president, but has clearly molded his political style on Trump's brazen and sometimes arrogant character.

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In a recent debate, Mandel and Gibbons, who had a slim lead in February polling, were involved in a face-to-face altercation during a disagreement over stock trades, which prompted Mandel to tell his counterpart, "two tours in Iraq, don't tell me I haven't worked." Gibbons' campaign called Mandel "unhinged" after the debate and accused him of lying about Gibbons' investment record as a tactic to make up ground in the primary.

Vance is also no stranger to controversy, and has used the financial backing of venture capitalist billionaire Peter Thiel to put himself in the thick of the Republican primary. He touts himself as a "conservative outsider," and has been endorsed by several far-right politicians, including U.S. Senator Josh Hawley and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as conservative activist and radio host Charlie Kirk.

As for picking a winner in the Republican side of the primary, even the experts are finding it difficult.

"Primaries can be unpredictable," Buchler said, "particularly with so many candidates, and we have not seen new polls for a while, but Gibbons and Mandel were in the spotlight, not merely for almost coming to blows in a debate."

The Democratic Party has rallied behind Congressman Tim Ryan, whose working class roots and center-left politics make him a formidable threat in an increasingly conservative Ohio.

Ryan is expected to win the nomination easily, but is opposed by attorney Morgan Harper and business owner Traci Johnson, neither of whom have ever held an elected office.

Ryan's wealth of experience began to accumulate when he was elected to Congress in 2003, and he said recently he hopes to use a position in the Senate to pass legislation to help Ohio's working class and revitalize the manufacturing industry in Ohio.

Niven said Ryan has a chance to win the Senate seat in November even though Ohio is a "Republican trending state," in part because of potential self-inflicted damage by whoever his Republican opponent is.

"Candidates who are on the far fringe are capable of self-inflicted wounds and helping the other party," he said. "The [winning] Tim Ryan scenario is being relentlessly acceptable and being able to capitalize if the Republicans inflict damage upon themselves."

Niven mentioned Vance and Mandel specifically, saying "there is no way for them to modify or moderate themselves. They are hardcore Trump voices, and they could easily do some damage to themselves with the extremity of what they have to say."

Buchler agree and said a Democrat could win the Senate seat "under the right conditions."

"A bad candidate, or bad timing, and things become possible," he said.

The May 3 primary will also determine candidates for the upcoming gubernatorial election, with incumbent Mike DeWine expected to nab the Republican nomination.

Although he faced criticism from his own party for restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, DeWine remains the party favorite and could win reelection handily in November.

Niven said DeWine would be under serious threat to lose the nomination if not for the fact that his three Republican opponents are all running on the same "anti-DeWine" platform.

"If you object to DeWine's response to Covid, or if you object to DeWine," he said, "your vote is being split into three pieces. He was very vulnerable going into this primary race, but he is fortunate that none of his opponents have distinguished themselves."

Democrats in the Buckeye State will choose between former mayors Nan Whaley of Dayton and John Cranley of Cincinnati, either of whom will face an uphill battle to become governor.

"They both need to build statewide recognition," Niven said. "It's a fact of life in Ohio that it's hard to go from local candidate to statewide candidate...Cleveland doesn't have a heck of a lot in common with Cincinnati, and both of these candidates need to work on that awareness."

The cause isn't hopeless, however, as Niven pointed to Kansas and Louisiana as examples of right-leaning states with Democratic governors.

"It's possible for Democrats to succeed in states where they're not particularly strong when they run a thoroughly qualified candidate against one who is damaged," he said.

Courthouse News will have results and analysis of the primary election, as well as coverage of the general election in November.

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