By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS and JOHN SEEWER
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — GOP Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine says he has no regrets about his response to the coronavirus pandemic even if Republican voters who thought he went too far are angry enough to vote him out in the upcoming May primary.
DeWine, 75, is running for a second four-year term, which he has said will mark the end of his career in politics. The governor has faced at times harsh criticism from GOP voters and fellow Republicans in the Legislature over his early shut-down orders and mask mandate.
DeWine told The Associated Press in a Wednesday interview that his pro-life stance includes protecting people from death by COVID-19, not making expedient political decisions.
“Whatever happens in the election happens, but this was a crucial time in our history,” DeWine said. “And I had an obligation to listen, which I did, to consult and then to make decisions that I thought were in the best interests of the people of Ohio.”
In the May 3 GOP primary, DeWine faces former GOP Congressman Jim Renacci and Joe Blystone, a central Ohio farmer. Renacci has attacked DeWine as governing “like a blue-state liberal.”
A handful of county GOP chairs in reliably Republican areas of rural Ohio also have gone after the governor over his pandemic shutdowns.
DeWine took an early and aggressive stand against the coronavirus, sharply restricting a giant sports festival in Columbus in early March 2020 without a single case of COVID-19 in the state, a move that many questioned. He followed up by becoming the first governor of any party to shut down schools.
Although he initially hesitated to mandate masks statewide, DeWine finally made that order permanent in July 2020, along with numerous other restrictions on movement and mass gatherings.
Early in the pandemic, the governor shut down restaurants and retail shops and later set overnight curfews for bars and other businesses, drawing criticism almost immediately from fellow GOP lawmakers. Some business owners, including the state’s two largest amusement parks, filed legal challenges against the restrictions.
DeWine said this week that the state struck a middle-ground approach when compared with other states, pointing out that factories and construction companies were allowed to remain open.
“One of the things that we did early on in the pandemic is brought the business community in and put them on committees to come up with how best to, in some cases open their businesses back up,” the governor said.
A handful of far-right legislators called for DeWine’s impeachment, and in March 2021 the Republican General Assembly handed the governor his first veto override involving legislation that restricted Ohio ability to respond to emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.
The mask order was finally lifted last summer, and DeWine resisted calls to renew it, saying Ohio now had the tools with the vaccine to combat the coronavirus.
A big reason why some Republican voters grew angry with DeWine was because they saw him putting in restrictions that ran counter to what they were hearing from President Donald Trump and conservative governors in other states, said Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
“I don’t think they see him as one of us. I think they see him as one of them,” Devine said. “He has been around for decades, but in many ways he represents an old model of the Republican Party.”
Still, he thinks that DeWine’s critics are a vocal minority and that the governor will be hard to beat in the primary.
DeWine told The Associated Press that government should not be in the business of either requiring vaccines — as President Joe Biden attempted with his big employer mandate — or prohibiting vaccine mandates, as Ohio House Republicans want to. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Biden’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees.
“Seems to me that that is a conservative approach that I’m taking,” DeWine said. “Seems to me it’s consistent with what Republicans believe.”
Seewer reported from Toledo.
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