Analysis: Why the choice of a candidate as running mate is more about symbolism than substance
Some days the most important political news may turn out to be the least important in the long run.
Wednesday may have been one of those days in Ohio politics.
It was the day the two contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor, former mayor of Cincinnati John Cranley and former mayor of Dayton Nan Whaley, announced in dueling press conferences their choices for their lieutenant-governor’s running mate.
Whaley chose Cheryl Stephens, vice president of Cuyahoga County Council and former mayor of Cleveland Heights, forming the first all-female ticket in Ohio political history.
Cranley chose a longtime feminist leader in the Ohio Statehouse, State Senator Teresa Fedor from Toledo, a city with a lot of Democratic primary votes to be won.
And then most of Ohio rolled over in bed and went back to sleep.
The question today is: Does it matter who a candidate for governor chooses for his running mate? Does it make a difference in terms of votes in primary or general elections?
There is little evidence to suggest this is the case.
Prior to 1978, the governor and lieutenant governor of Ohio were elected in separate races. And occasionally the governor belonged to one party and the lieutenant governor to another.
This happened in 1974, the last year the boards were elected separately.
Republican Jim Rhodes – a certified good old boy pol of Jackson County, in the heart of the Appalachians – had served two terms as governor of Ohio in the 1960s and was trying to come back against incumbent Democratic Gov. John Gilligan of Cincinnati, who was talked about as a potential candidate for the presidential election in 1976.
Well, Rhodes fooled all the pundits by securing a victory in the closest gubernatorial election in Ohio history – less than one vote per riding.
At the same time, Dick Celeste, a promising young Democrat from the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, was running for lieutenant governor against an incumbent Republican. Celeste won, but he had hoped he would serve with Gilligan, who would have prepared him for a gubernatorial race in 1978. Instead, he was stuck with Rhodes and had nothing else to do. than to prepare his own campaign for governor – which he lost to Rhodes in 1978 but won in 1982 when Rhodes was expelled for a limited term.
It was a pretty horrible system, which created political discrepancies like Rhodes-Celeste in 1974. Better for a candidate for governor, Republican or Democrat, to run with a candidate for lieutenant-governor of their choice.
For the most part, the lieutenant governors who have held this position since 1978 have been assigned functions by the governor in an area in which he or she has a particular interest. Sometimes they were assigned to a state government department.
But do these running mates really help a gubernatorial candidate get elected?
In most cases, I think, choosing a running mate is more about symbolism than substance.
We know how the current governor, Republican Mike DeWine, got his lieutenant governor, Jon Husted. Husted was a rival to DeWine for the 2018 gubernatorial nomination when he decided to drop his campaign and team up with DeWine, taking with him a shipment of campaign dollars. Instant running companion. Money speaks.
The choices of Democratic candidates are much more interesting.
Fedor, Cranley’s choice for a running mate, has been a leader on the Democratic side of the aisle of the legislature for a long time, on issues such as combating human trafficking, as an advocate for human rights abortion, an opponent of school vouchers and a host of issues that are especially important to progressive democratic women.
These women make up a significant portion of the Democratic primary vote in Ohio; and Cranley knows he needs to get as far away as possible from Whaley, his old friend and political ally. Progressive Democratic voters may not know much about John Cranley, but they do know Teresa Fedor.
Whaley’s choice for Stephens is also loaded with symbolism.
Stephens is African American; and given the importance of black voters in a Democratic primary – particularly black voters in the Cleveland / Northeast Ohio area – it makes perfect sense to have a black politician familiar with those voters on the list.
The twinning of Whaley and Stephens marks the first time that one of the major parties has an all-female ticket running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.
Ohio is one of a decreasing number of states that have not elected a female governor. In fact, the state has never had a woman among the main candidates for governor.
Four women, however, have served as lieutenant governor, all of them Republican. (You get extra points if you can name them.)
One of the quirks of Ohio politics is that Ohio has had a woman as its governor – but only for 11 days.
Nancy Hollister of Marietta – whose ancestor, Rufus Putnam, was one of the founders of the Northwest Territories – was Lieutenant Governor to Governor George Voinovich during his second term. But in 1998, the governor was elected to the US Senate.
Voinovich resigned his governorship on December 31, 1998, to prepare to take the seat of the Senate. That made Hollister, a former mayor of Marietta, Ohio, 66e governor until Jan. 11, 1999, when Republican Bob Taft of Cincinnati, who won the 1998 gubernatorial race, was sworn in as 67e Governor of Ohio.
Ohio has existed as a state for almost 219 years. He had a woman as governor for 11 days.
Someday that will change. Whether Whaley is the one to break the glass ceiling remains to be seen. But sooner or later a woman will sit in the Ohio governor’s office.
But if Whaley becomes the first woman elected governor, it probably won’t be because of her choice of running mate, with all due respect to Cheryl Stephens.
What if Cranley became the 70e male governor of Ohio, Teresa Fedor will not get the credit.
This 2022 race will be the 13th Ohio gubernatorial campaign that I have covered. I don’t remember one where I thought a lieutenant governor running mate made the difference in the outcome.
Running mates can help at the edges, focusing their campaign on specific groups of voters, whether they are progressive women, African Americans, or some other part of the Democratic coalition.
But, in the end, most voters voted for the name at the top, not the second banana on the ballot. This goes for Democrats as well as Republicans.
The running mates could well be the gubernatorial candidates themselves somewhere down the line. We’re reasonably sure that’s exactly what Jon Husted is hoping for.
But, in the meantime, they should go about their business and take to heart the guiding principle of physicians:
First of all, do no harm.