Think of this year’s race for governor as a talent contest. Oh, not in that performing-on-stage format, Richard Cordray answering with a question, Mike DeWine addressing the plight of Haitians (to which he has devoted much time and energy). The difference in this campaign comes down to the candidate more prepared to invest in the talent and skills of Ohioans.

Republicans have controlled the governor’s office for all but four years since 1991, and they’ve held the legislature in a similar way. The past dozen or so years have been devoted to reducing taxes on businesses and individuals, the return skewed heavily to the wealthy.

What does the state have to show other than the loss of $3 billion a year in revenue and riding the wave of an expanding national economy? Ohio has not escaped the frustrating trajectory of mediocre income gains and job creation. It lags behind the national average on both counts. This trend didn’t begin in this century or even the 1980s and 1990s. It goes back six decades, when the income of the typical Ohioan exceeded the national average by 9 percentage points.

Now it is roughly 9 points below.

Ohio has not adjusted well to what increasingly has become a knowledge economy. This is an old story. Yet the state still hasn’t faced squarely the challenge.

In 2016, the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board called for what has been overdue: 65 percent of Ohioans ages 25 to 64 having “a degree, certificate or other postsecondary workforce credentials of value in the workplace by 2025.” Little is in place to indicate the state will get there, and that goal alone is not the answer. Still, it is the right direction, involving a reset of priorities, less about tax cuts and more about taking the overall knowledge of Ohioans to a higher level.

Mike DeWine sees the need. He proposes investing in early education and improved child-care programs. He wants to direct new resources to schools burdened by poverty. Richard Cordray has similar ideas for the “skills gap.” At the same time, the three debates between the candidates highlighted a difference. The Democrat wasn’t just more fluent in his handling of the issues. He stuck his neck out in important ways.

His proposal for tuition-free community college may not be within reach today. It does represent a telling marker about his commitment to the state doing better to ease the steep expense of higher education.

It matters, too, that Ohio cultivates an environment for keeping, attracting and enhancing talent. That translates to the state reviving its partnership with cities and counties through a replenished Local Government Fund (slashed to pay for tax cuts). Cordray has pledged to do so. In that way, communities aren’t straining as much to support crucial services and amenities.

The same goes for public works, Cordray with a plan to ask voters for $1.8 billion in bond money for much-needed improvements in roads, bridges, public transit, broadband and water systems. The Medicaid expansion isn’t just about health care. It also goes to elevating the quality of the workforce. Here, Cordray has been much more clear and firm in his support. He will push back against excesses in curbing abortion rights.

In all, Cordray has shown more ambition for a state that could use it. It is apparent in his backing of clean energy and his willingness to do what Statehouse Republicans still resist: Examine the $9 billion a year Ohio spends on tax breaks. After eight years of absolute Republican rule, the state would gain from such an alternative voice, equipped with what the Democratic minorities now lack, real clout.

One thing Ohioans missed in this election year was a primary showdown between Jon Husted and Mike DeWine. The secretary of state joined the attorney general as the ticket’s candidate for lieutenant governor. If they had faced each other, it seems a safe bet Husted would have emphasized the contrast: younger man with fresh perspectives taking on the 42-year veteran of public life.

Richard Cordray has his own lengthy record. He knows the fiscal limits he would face. In this contest, he has been the fresher in his understanding that the state’s future depends on getting more out of its talent.

Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.