With businessman Donald Trump enjoying a solid Republican primary win in South Carolina and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fending off U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic caucus in Nevada over the weekend, local Republican and Democratic party officials say the contests for the major party nominations may be coming into focus – unless they’re not.
Local party officials believe that while Trump and Clinton are in the driver’s seats, the real test will come on the first Super Tuesday, March 1, and the races may not be decided until the second Super Tuesday on March 15, when Ohio voters will weigh in and when most primaries are a “winner take all” format in regard to delegates.
Kay Ayres, chair of the Highland County Republican Party, said Monday that while Trump is the frontrunner and in a strong position going forward, “I don’t think he has it completely sewn up.” But as long as four or five other GOP candidates stay in the race, it will be difficult to defeat Trump, she said.
Ayres said the Republican best positioned to challenge Trump – if others drop out and their supporters coalesce around him – is Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida.
“Rubio can do it,” she said. “But lots of things have to happen.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race Saturday night, leaving Trump, Rubio, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and neurosurgeon Ben Carson fighting for the GOP nomination.
Ayres commended Bush for seeing “the writing on the wall” and stepping aside on Saturday after the South Carolina votes came in. She said other candidates need to consider doing the same, especially because the money and votes that are split four or five ways need to support one candidate since “Trump gets all the free media.”
Ayres said she is concerned that Trump doesn’t offer specifics about how he will accomplish his agenda, something that other voters should care about, too, she said. “He hasn’t told us how he will do it,” she said. “I don’t buy a pig in a poke.”
Ayres said the voter frustration fueling Trump’s rise stems in part from a lack of understanding about why Republicans in Congress have not accomplished some of the items voters say they want. She said that while Republicans control the Senate, they are short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster or the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
She said Trump’s various promises cannot be accomplished without congressional support, unless he issues a number of executive orders such as President Obama has done to criticism from most Republicans, including Trump.
Handicapping the Democratic race, Ayres said Clinton’s weekend win in Nevada positioned her to be formidable going forward, but “it all depends on what the FBI does,” referring to the ongoing investigation into Clinton’s emails.
Ayres said the nominee could eventually be Sanders, adding that Democrats are in a tough spot between Clinton and Sanders because “one is under an FBI investigation and the other one’s a socialist.”
Dinah Phillips, chair of the Highland County Democratic Party, said Monday that Clinton is well-positioned to become the Democratic nominee, “especially after Nevada.” She said Sanders will have difficulty getting traction in southern states, although “anything can happen.”
In Ohio, Phillips said Clinton and her husband, Bill, the former president, are familiar figures in the state and Hillary should do well here.
Phillips said she does not necessarily share the belief of many Democrats that Trump would be easy pickings for Clinton in a general election.
“I would have said that several months ago,” said Phillips. “But not now. It’s a case of, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’” She said she hears from voters who say they like Trump because “he says what he thinks,” and he plays to an anti-politician sentiment.
Phillips said that while it’s impossible to predict how the investigation into Clinton’s emails will turn out, “Hillary has been vetted for 25 or 30 years. They’ve turned over every rock and stone to find something against her.” She said Clinton is “a very intelligent person” who would “make a wonderful president.” But she acknowledged that the former first lady is also a “lightning rod.”
“People love her or hate her,” said Phillips.
Phillips said the presidential race in Ohio this fall could have an impact on the Senate race between Republican incumbent Rob Portman and his Democratic challenger, likely to be Ted Strickland, the former congressman and Ohio governor.
Last week, Highland County Commissioner Shane Wilkin introduced Portman at a Lincoln Day Dinner, saying Portman is a friend to Highland County, and touting economic development issues on which he said Portman has been invaluable.
But Phillips said Strickland is stronger in southern Ohio than most Democrats, something she said the Portman campaign recognizes and which accounts for recent visits by Portman to the area to “shore up his base.” She said local voters know Strickland “on a personal basis,” and he has made a career of representing all constituents regardless of party affiliation.
Gary Lewis, the Hillsboro city auditor who is president of the Highland County Republican Club, said Monday that while Trump is in a strong position following his wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he has to demonstrate that his ceiling is higher than the “29 to 35 percent” he has garnered so far.
Lewis said he has a personal interest in the fortunes of Rubio, since his son works for the Rubio campaign in Nevada. He said that so far, only a small percentage of delegates have been awarded, and two-thirds of Republicans have expressed support for candidates other than Trump.
If other GOP candidates drop out, Trump will receive some of their supporters, said Lewis, but more of them might coalesce around the remaining challenger, possibly adding up to a Trump defeat.
Lewis said the March 1 so-called SEC primary “will be very interesting.” He said Cruz should do well in his home state of Texas. He said Kasich will likely remain in the race through the March 15 Ohio primary.
Whatever happens, Lewis said the presidential election has been “the most intriguing I can remember,” largely because of Trump.
Jolene Walker, a member of the county Democratic Central Committee from Liberty Township, said Monday that while Clinton is in a strong position, “it’s too early to tell” who will ultimately prevail until after the March 1 Super Tuesday.
Walker said she wasn’t familiar with Sanders until he got into the presidential race. She said the support for Trump on the GOP side and Sanders on the Democratic landscape represents an attraction by some voters to fresh faces, but “I don’t see a whole lot of specifics about what they’re going to do.”
She said she is discouraged by the negative tone of the campaigns. “I don’t care for this tearing down,” she said. “I don’t like all the bickering and negativity.”
Like Phillips, Walker said a strong turnout for Clinton in Ohio this fall could benefit Strickland in his race against Portman.
“Ted has a lot of friends on both sides here,” said Walker. “He sees all his constituents the same. He served all his people.”
Early voting for the Republican and Democratic primaries began last Wednesday in Ohio, and on Monday Debbie Craycraft, local election board director, said voting has been steady.
Craycraft said that in Highland County as of late Monday, 158 ballots have been mailed to people requesting them, 66 votes have been cast in person in the office, and 28 ballots have been hand-carried by people taking them home to vote or delivering them to nursing homes, for a total of 252. Of the 252 ballots cast or requested, 182 have been Republicans and 70 have been Democrats.
Questions about early voting can be directed to the board office at 937-393-9961.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.