Conservative voters exiting Akron-area polls Tuesday coalesced on the issues, expressing confidence that the GOP will retake control of Congress this fall while continuing to dominate state government.
Polling ahead of Tuesday’s primary supported their projection.
But a diversity of opinion emerged on whether to heed or ignore former President Donald Trump’s advice on who to vote for, and whether the party faces an existential crisis in its ongoing drift to the right, which is alienating independent, moderate and former Republican voters.
On the issues, deeply conservative voters broadly criticized Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s swift response to the pandemic, while moderate conservatives commended the governor for following an evolving science. Ohio was among the first states in the nation to shut down schools and businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19,
Conservative voters attributed record inflation to President Joe Biden’s management of the national economy and said he’s left the country less financially secure.
And few voiced confidence in U.S. elections, underscoring a sustained erosion of integrity in a pillar of American democracy.
DeWine’s pandemic response
Conservative voters’ opinions on DeWine appeared to hinge on one major issue: his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think he’s done a really good job overall,” Blanche Reynolds, 72, of Akron, said after voting again for DeWine. “He’s stepped up to the plate on a lot of issues, but as far as COVID is concerned, he’s done a great job keeping us safe and updated every day.”
Others opted for former congressman and Wadsworth Mayor Jim Renacci, who has routinely attacked DeWine for overreaching during the pandemic.
“I like a lot of (DeWine’s) issues, especially on guns, but there were a lot of things I didn’t agree when when it came to closing down schools and all that,” said 75-year-old Barberton resident Ronnie McKinney, who voted for Renacci.
Paul Horbaly, 66, of Freedom Township in rural Portage County, said he was “not satisfied with the way (Gov. DeWine) handled the whole COVID pandemic in comparison to the way Florida handled it.”
Horbaly works in business development for a local roofing company and hopes to retire in a couple years.
“I thought there was a lot of overreach there,” he said. “I think it’s time for new direction in Ohio.”
Dan Bowers, also of Freedom Township, agreed.
“Top of the list is how he handled COVID,” said Bowers, 52, who is disabled and not working. “We shut down small businesses that didn’t survive but we left big-box stores open. If you have a small business, you’re essential. What’s the difference if it’s a local store or Walmart?”
“DeWine had to go,” said Mary Zalewski of Streetsboro. The Joe Blystone supporter was looking for someone other than “career politicians” like Renacci and DeWine.
Zalewski voted for DeWine four years ago and had no regrets until the pandemic.
“He wasn’t for the people. In my mind, he wasn’t for the science. That’s where I really saw the political side of him: a career politician,” she said.
Carol McDonald, a retired school teacher who voted in Hudson, saw nothing political in DeWine or the science that led him to lock down the economy in the early months of the pandemic.
“I’m OK with that,” she said after voting for DeWine on Tuesday. “I want him to follow the science.”
McDonald also voted Matt Dolan for U.S. Senate. She said she’d support anyone not supported by Trump, adding that he “is not my leader.”
Trust in Trump
Despite their general support of the former president, many conservative voters couldn’t get behind Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance for U.S. Senate.
“I heard Vance say a lot of things about Trump,” said Maria Ungur, a retired Republican voter in Streetsboro. “I’m surprised that Trump endorsed him.”
Ungur and her husband, who immigrated with their children from communist Romania in 1980, voted instead for Josh Mandel, a conservative who ardently sought Trump’s endorsement.
Several conservatives called Vance a “flip-flopper” who once called Trump a “total fraud” and his supporters “racist.”
“I don’t like J.D. Vance. His past comments — I just don’t trust him,” said David Olds, a retired 67-year-old Barberton resident. “Trump is past his prime. We just need to move on from him.”
Olds’ wife, Mary, echoed those sentiments, saying conservatives “need Trump out of politics.” The pair voted for Dolan in the Republican primary following the announced retirement of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
For some, though, Trump’s endorsement made the difference.
Joseph Porter, 62 of Coventry Township, cast votes for Vance and former co-chair of the national Women for Trump advisory board Madison Gesiotto Gilbert for the Ohio’s 13th District.
“The way the country is going everything is messed up and we need better leadership,” Ronnie McKinney, 75, of Barberton, said. “We had that under Trump. We don’t have it now.”
Several conservative voters in southern Summit County said education is a top concern in this election cycle.
“We need to get our schools back,” said Mary Olds. “Parents need to be involved. I have grandchildren, and they don’t go to public schools because of how bad public schools are.”
Though Springfield’s five-year, $3.9 million school levy brought Melissa Galloway, a 41-year-old mother of two, to the polls on Tuesday, she used the opportunity to vote for Renacci to replace DeWine. Ultimately, she said, education is her most important issue.
GOP voters strongly opposed instruction of hotly contested issues, such as critical race theory (which is taught at the college level), gender identity or sexual orientation, and said they would support any candidate who restricted funding to schools addressing those topics.
Legislation that would ban such instruction is currently making its way through the Ohio Statehouse, commonly referred to as “Don’t Say Gay.”
Rising costs and the economy were top of mind for most conservative voters.
“Inflation has got me rattled,” said Reynolds, an Akron voter who chose Dolan as her Senate pick. “I want someone who is going to fight for Ohio and get inflation under control.”
“Inflation, No. 1,” John Rankin of Streetsboro said when asked to name the biggest issues in this election.
“I think that everything that Biden has done is wrong,” Rankin said.
“I got 40 miles one-way to work,” said Ronald Hagen of Shalersville. “You go from almost $2 a gallon to almost $5 per gallon. Ouch.”
Hagen drives for a trucking company. He doesn’t believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted the flow and supply of gas to Europe and the world, has had any impact on the global increase in the price of a barrel of oil.
“It has nothing to do with Russia,” Hagen said, blaming Biden for stopping the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a project that spanned President Trump’s time in office without being completed.
Conservative voters criticized mail-in voting and repeated unverified claims of mass voter fraud in the 2020 election. Few leveled heavy criticism on how Ohio elections are run.
There was too much smoke, often fanned by conservative pundits, to ignore the possibility that the election was somehow rigged in favor of Democrats, they said.
“There were too many inconsistencies that said there very well could have been cheating,” said Freedom Township voter Bowers, pointing to Pennsylvania’s expansion of mail-in voting in 2019 as a possible source of alleged voter fraud.
Reviews by state and local election officials, as well as national and local media outlets, have found no evidence of voter fraud at a level that would impact the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. In Ohio, officials have found 42 illegally cast ballots out of 5.9 million that counted.
Bowers said Democrats targeted states like Georgia to subvert the integrity of state elections that were critical to the outcome of the presidential race.
“It didn’t go on here in Ohio, because Ohio had a better handle on their elections,” he said.
“I don’t trust what’s happening today,” self-described “patriot” Zalewski said before heading into a Streetsboro church to vote.
In Hudson, some voters blamed “propaganda” on the right for pushing GOP voters toward more extreme candidates.
“Locally, I’m a believer that there should be no political parties in Hudson,” said Frank Youngwerth, a retired sales executive and producer of Good Day Hudson, which provides publicly accessible community commentary.
Youngwerth said he thinks “it’s terrible” how partisan politics now permeates local elections. He and his wife, Polly, a retired teacher, are backing more moderate Republican candidates like DeWine and Dolan.
“It’s better to have people who are trying to put people together,” said Youngwerth.
One Republican voter named Dennis, who asked that his last name not be used to talk candidly about his party, said Republican candidates at the state and national level should be punished at the ballot box for scapegoating Mexicans, homosexuals and Black people while espousing white supremacy.
As political rancor forces voters to chose sides, the independent share of the electorate is shrinking.
The Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron released a poll last week of 1,550 eligible Ohio voters. John Green, political professor and interim director of the Bliss Institute, said the share of Ohio voters who identify as independent declined 5% since 2018 while polarization, especially on hot-button issues this election, continues to grow.
“Neither party is popular with independents,” Green said. “And that’s a feature of polarization. Many independent voters feel disenfranchised.”
Kara Downing is among the disenfranchised. The financial planner who lives in Hudson voted consistently for Republican candidates until 2016.
“I don’t think I’ve changed my views at all,” she explained. “It’s just that the party, its definitions and stances have changed so much in the past 10 years. It’s gone too far to the right.”
Downing wore a shirt supporting access to abortion, a polarizing issue supercharged in this primary election after Politico on Monday leaked a draft opinion of by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is poised to overturn the landmark 1972 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Downing expects the liberals to shift, too, in the opposite direction.
“They’re headed that way,” she said. “I think the more divided we get, the more you’re going to see these polarizations. I don’t think there’s enough voices in the center.”
Casting his Republican ballot a few minutes later at the same location, Larry King said of Democrats: “Why would I vote for a socialist?”
McDonald, the retired teacher from Hudson who voted for moderate Republicans in the Tuesday primary, had little hope for the future of politics in America if polarization is not tamed.
“It’s sad,” she said. “It’s scary. And I feel helpless.”
Reach reporter Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.
Reporter Abbey Marshall is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Conservative voters in Summit and Portage split over Trump and DeWine