COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Warming up a crowd with a joke is a political trade 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, professional economist, and lawmaker, launching a rally for the re-election of then-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 defining moment for Husted, the right-wing governor’s man who was constantly grieved by the party’s Trump wing over COVID-19 restrictions in Ohio.
In light of this reception, Husted has increasingly used provocative rhetoric on social media over the past year – most recently interrupted by a tweet with the phrase “Wuhan virus,” classified as flammable by health experts and Asian Americans – even if its tone is moderate in regular coronavirus briefings.
Husted launched in 2020 as one of Ohio’s rising Republican stars. 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 outlined ambitious plans such as expanding broadband access and providing technology loans to young Ohioans.
But he presented another Husted on Twitter.
He uses the platform for standard partisan tariffs, but also to raise more extreme views. There is Husted, who promotes GOP narratives that DeWine has avoided, declaring “culture breakup” as an obstacle to free speech and even retweeting attacks on virus restrictions promoted by his own government.
Niven said Husted is trying to “gain a foothold” online.
“His political future is so inextricably linked to Mike DeWine right now that it poses some challenges for him,” said Niven. “One of those is that DeWine could eventually go into sunset and Husted needs to be ready to take his next move right away.”
The controversy over the “Wuhan Virus” tweet – linked to an article in which a former CDC director says COVID-19 originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China with no evidence – got Husted where he was seldom located these days: center stage.
Husted immediately faced backlash for using the term, which, according to proponents and Asian Americans, has led to direct violence against them.
More than 80 Asian American members of the Columbus suburb, where Husted lives, wrote him a letter saying his “choice of words only aroused the fear and fear” they are grappling with.
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.
Politically, Husted sees himself under strong pressure from both sides.
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.”
Meanwhile, the Republicans are putting pressure on Husted to assert himself. A comment by Cincinnati entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy circulated by the Ohio Republican Party urged Husted not to say he was sorry.
Ramaswamy, the son of Indian immigrants and a frequent commentator on FOX News, partnered with Husted as a COVID-19 advisor to the administration last year. He said the lieutenant governor was “not a racist” and advised him to “be sensitive but not apologize”.
“An apology would reinforce the false and offensive notion that Asian Americans are linked to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party,” wrote Ramaswamy.
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. Trump won the state twice by an overwhelming majority.
“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.