WASHINGTON — The last time two Ohioans squared off in a race for the White House was 98 years ago: Republican presidential nominee Warren G. Harding defeated Democrat James Cox. Harding was from Marion, Cox from Dayton.
Now, after decades of Ohio politicians playing minor roles in presidential politics, both Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Gov. John Kasich might run for president in 2020.
Their interest is perhaps unsurprising. For much of his second term, Kasich has been a regular on national weekend talk shows, fueling speculation that he would challenge President Donald Trump in the 2020 Republican primary or run a third-party candidacy.
Brown, long one of the more ambitious Ohio politicians in Washington, was interviewed in 2016 by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a potential candidate for vice president. While she eventually opted for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, Brown has since been regarded as a candidate for the national ticket in 2020.
With Kasich winning two terms as governor and Brown having won five statewide elections since 1982, both have demonstrated they can carry Ohio, a state crucial for any presidential candidate trying to amass 270 electoral votes.
“Sherrod Brown would be a pretty decent nominee if he were able to get nominated,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said “a lot of what” Kasich is “doing is based on the premise that the country is going to look in a different direction for a different style of leadership in 2020, someone who isn’t divisive.”
Yet the likelihood that either would be nominated remains slim. Brown, a middle-aged white man, would have to run in a Democratic primary against as many as 12 candidates in a Democratic landscape that had preferred to break the mold, nominating an African-American and then a woman its past three opportunities.
Kasich, who finished second to Trump in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, would have an even tougher path.
He could either run as a third-party candidate or challenge Trump in the GOP primaries, prompting former Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell to quip, “John would be lucky to place third in a two-man race against Trump.”
For the bulk of his career, Brown has focused squarely on Ohio: First as a state representative, then Ohio secretary of state, then a longtime U.S. House member and finally, starting in 2007, as a U.S. senator.
“I didn’t have this dream of being president of the United States all my life,” Brown said on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. “My dream was to play center field for the Cleveland Indians. That door obviously has closed.”
But in the aftermath of Brown’s defeat of Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci this month, he said calls and emails have poured in urging him to run. Brown and his wife, Connie Schultz, were “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm,” he said.
He even has honed an approach that one Ohio Republican acknowledged “is a hell of a good message” — hailing the dignity of work and helping middle-income people who he likes to say never get ahead and lack retirement security.
Mark Caleb Smith, the director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said Brown has proven he can win as a Democrat in a Midwestern state that is trending Republican. He attracts both blue-collar and middle-class voters, which any successful Democrat will need to win a general election.
Other Democrats are more resistant to the idea. They point out that while Brown won in a decisively GOP year in the state, he still lost ground in traditional Democratic strongholds such as the Youngstown area and southeastern Ohio despite outraising his opponent by nearly $20 million.
One Democrat strategist said Renacci’s “entire campaign consisted of rehashing Sherrod’s divorce (from 1986) and he still came within six points. I don’t know that he’s going to bring you Ohio” in a presidential campaign.
“I’m a fan of Sherrod in the Senate,” that strategist said. “But I am not convinced he’s presidential timber.”
Others fear Trump will show no hesitation in reviving Brown’s divorce. But Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said the Democratic field will be so crowded she doubts that “Trump is going to put every single Democrat in his sights systematically and go through each and every one of them.”
Still, Brown must be on Trump’s radar: In comments to the Wall Street Journal this week, Trump blamed Brown for GM’s decision to slash jobs in Lordstown, Ohio, spurring Brown to fire back on Twitter.
While Brown created a stir in November when he spoke of running for president, no one was surprised when Kasich said last week on “This Week” that he is talking to friends and associates about running in 2020.
Since Trump took office in 2017, Kasich has been test-driving his message that the country will tire of Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
By any standard, he has presided over a healthy time in Ohio. Non-farm payrolls have increased by more than 600,000, income taxes were cut and a budget shortfall of $8 billion in 2010 has been replaced by a surplus.
“What voters, regardless of political party, want is someone who is authentic, principled and willing to put their country over their political party; someone who will put forward real solutions to our nation’s challenges, not just political sound bites,” said Chris Schrimpf, a Kasich spokesman. “They want an end to the chaos and fighting and for our country to work together.”
The drawback is Kasich’s rhetoric on national TV sometimes clashes with his record. Privately, even some Republicans describe Kasich as sometimes prickly and divisive, quick to take offense at those who disagree with him.
Just after his election as governor in 2010, he bluntly told a gathering of lobbyists “we need you on the bus and if you are not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus. And I’m not kidding.”
And his tough criticism of Trump does not sit well with Republicans who support the president. As one Kasich insider said, “Virulent hatred is not a good mindset for putting together a winning campaign.”