The fact Nov. 6 is the first midterm election of the Trump era is itself a huge news story. And in Ohio, races for governor and U.S. Senate are sucking up most of the public attention that remains. But two formidable candidates are locked in a tight battle for Ohio attorney general — a race and an office deserving attention of their own.
This story kicks off a weeklong Dispatch series on all statewide down-ticket races, which often get less attention.
Wags say "A.G." stands for "aspiring governor," and current Attorney General Mike DeWine is the Republican nominee for the state's top office. But the Ohio attorney general's office itself has sweeping powers: It's the lawyer for state agencies. It has enforcement authority to protect consumers, uphold antitrust law and fight organized crime. And it can sue the federal government the way DeWine did in 2011, when he joined a multi-state effort aimed at killing the Affordable Care Act.
The current election features Republican state Auditor Dave Yost and former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach, a Democrat.
Who's winning depends on which poll you look at. One released last week, conducted by Baldwin Wallace University, has Yost up by 6 percentage points. Another, by Suffolk University and the Cincinnati Enquirer, has Dettelbach up by 4.4. But, each poll said that more than 20 percent of voters were undecided, which means Dettelbach and Yost will be working furiously through the next 23 days to persuade those people how to vote.
With millions in campaign contributions, each candidate has the resources to do so.
Dettelbach spokeswoman Liz Doherty said that, "regarding advertising, we’re on the air with a seven-figure TV buy across Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown and Dayton highlighting Steve’s (work) putting away corrupt politicians and working to tackle the opioid crisis by taking on a big drug company for illegally pushing opioids and prosecuting drug traffickers."
Yost is running an ad that, like Dettelbach's, introduces himself to voters and another that bashes Dettelbach by claiming that Dettelbach's ties to his corporate law firm make him unable to fight the drug companies alleged to have ignited Ohio's opioid crisis. Dettelbach denies that claim. Yost's campaign hasn't released the size of its ad buys.
The two have split endorsements from the two major Ohio newspapers who have made them — The Dispatch picked Yost and the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked Dettelbach. Yost's other high-profile endorsements include Ohio Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business's Ohio PAC. Dettelbach's endorsements include a slew of labor unions, former President Barack Obama, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio and the Sierra Club.
Both candidates are keeping grueling schedules with lots "windshield time" as they crisscross the state and try to put themselves in front of as many voters as possible.
“I’m running on my record and talking about the rule of law, the importance of calling balls and strikes, not having friends and enemies, doing it on the merits, by the numbers, by the book,” Yost said Thursday when asked what message he's trying to impart to them.
With polls showing that health care is the most important issue to voters, Democrats have been highlighting DeWine's attempt as attorney general to kill Obamacare and its protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. Yost wouldn't say whether he agreed with the 2011 suit. “I wasn’t attorney general back then, and now (the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare) is the law of the land, so it’s kind of moot,” he said.
Dettelbach said he's been talking about corruption in Republican-controlled state government.
"The Statehouse Square culture is one that is fundamentally broken, and I think (people) get that, that special interests and people with money get treated one way and the interests of ordinary Ohioans get overlooked," he said.
While he and Ohio Democrats have been highlighting big scandals such as ECOT and the FBI investigation of former GOP House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, Dettelbach also is pointing out what he sees as smaller scandals.
He cited as one the fact that Yost has accepted $770 worth of baseball tickets since 2014 from the Cincinnati Reds, even though the organization has lobbying interests with the state government. "If I was U.S. attorney and somebody offered my $800 worth of free baseball tickets, I would have thrown them out of the office and told the FBI to look at what was going on," Dettelbach told a Worthington audience Wednesday.
Yost said he did nothing wrong.
“It was one year. I accepted them," he said. "I reported them as required by law, and the Reds are not a government entity and they have no business in front of me, lobbying, auditing or otherwise. I challenge (Dettelbach) to say what is wrong about that. What the law requires is that when a public officer receives a gift, they report it, which is what I did.”