COLUMBUS, Ohio – Warming up a crowd with a joke is a political bargain ploy. Ohio Republican Governor Jon Husted had no doubt used the technique successfully dozens of times before.
But one day last September things went very badly.
53-year-old Husted was back in southwest Ohio, where he had spent decades as a college football star, business professional, and lawmaker, starting a campaign rally for President Donald Trump. His joke was an attempt to encourage the wearing of masks. Not only did the crowd not laugh, they booked.
“All right, I see,” he said at last, clumsily ending his joke that those forced to wear masks in grocery stores “can at least say you are trying to save the country” by being a Trump 2020 theme wear face covering. Even though he was there promoting the work he and Republican Governor Mike DeWine were doing to elect Trump, someone said, “Get off the stage.”
It was a pivotal moment for Husted, the right-wing governor’s man who was grieved by the party’s Trump wing over COVID-19 restrictions in Ohio.
Husted started out as an aspiring Republican star in 2020. After an uninterrupted rise of two decades from state representative to speaker of the House of Representatives to senator to state secretary and now to vice governor, his next stop will be the governor’s residence.
But his party’s hard right turn – for many a deep hatred of COVID-19 restrictions – required a nifty recalculation.
University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven said Husted was trying to win the approval of the state and national Republican base without alienating more moderate Republicans and independents who have supported him in the past.
“I think the most important fact in this whole story is that Husted took part in Trump rallies last fall and spoke and was booed,” said Niven. “It doesn’t take much more to know that the most excited and active members of the Republican Party are skeptical of DeWine and Husted.”
Husted spent the past year alongside DeWine. The 74-year-old governor was first showered with bipartisan praise and then denounced by other Republicans for his aggressive pandemic response. As chief technology officer at DeWine, he has outlined ambitious plans such as expanding broadband access and providing technology loans to young people.
But he presented another Husted on Twitter.
He uses the platform for standard partisan tariffs, but also to raise more extreme views. Husted can be found where GOP narratives that DeWine has stayed away from are cited as an obstacle to free speech and even attacks on virus restrictions imposed by his own government, including former health director Dr. Amy Acton, endorses to be retweeted.
“This is someone who has stood up for over a year with the governor and with Dr. Acton and others who do not use that language, so it is politically almost incomprehensible why he would not only use this language but then defend it “he said to Karen Beckwith, professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.
Beckwith and Niven believe his online behavior is part of a larger pattern of political signaling for a very specific subgroup of the GOP.
“His political future is so inextricably linked to Mike DeWine right now, and that presents him with some challenges,” said Niven. “One of those is that DeWine might eventually go into sunset and Husted needs to be ready to take his next move right away.”
Following his “Wuhan Virus” tweet, more than 80 Asian American members of the Columbus suburb where Husted lives wrote a letter saying that his “choice of words only aroused fear and fear” who they face.
Husted dug into his heels saying he wanted to criticize the Chinese government and its role in spreading COVID-19. Nevertheless, he and his family members are expected to meet privately with some of the signatories of the letter on Friday.
Former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, who worked closely with Husted to pass a bipartisan budget in 2007, joined those who urged Husted to apologize publicly.
“He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was doing it to try and win favor with the Right,” Strickland said on WWGH’s The Early Show last week.
The Ohio Senate Democrats issued a joint statement calling on him to “listen and apologize to his Asian American neighbors.”
Republicans put pressure on Husted to assert himself. A comment by Cincinnati businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, circulated by the Ohio Republican Party, urged Husted not to apologize, saying it would “reinforce the wrong and offensive notion that Asian Americans are involved with the actions of the Chinese Communist Party are affiliated. Ramaswamy is the son of Indian immigrants and a former COVID-19 advisor to the DeWine administration.
Niven said Husted – whose history includes working with Democrats to create budgets, campaign for an end to gerrymandering that benefits the GOP, and as an adoptive fight for improvements in care – must now decide whether to go joins Republican moderates like DeWine and the former government. John Kasich is still politically prudent in a state where Trump has overwhelmingly won twice.
“I think that’s the crucial question of the moment: is there a future for the well-mannered Republican? Is there a future for a conservative who doesn’t breathe fire? “Said Niven. “And I think Jon Husted has more doubts that this well-mannered Republican has a future.”
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that lets journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.
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