How Nan Whaley, Dayton’s Mayor, Sees Ohio Politics and Portman’s Senate Seat

Senator Rob Portman’s announcement on Monday that he would not seek a third term in 2022 sent a shock wave through Ohio politics and dealt a setback to national Republicans who were counting on Mr. Portman, 65, to easily keep his seat in G.O.P. hands next year. By the afternoon, a throng of ambitious Republicans were circling the race, including the far-right Representative Jim Jordan, as well as a few prominent Democrats.

One of those Democrats was Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton. A 45-year-old progressive who campaigned for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 presidential primaries, Ms. Whaley has long been seen as a likely candidate for governor or Senate. In 2019, she led her city through the aftermath of a mass shooting in which nine people were killed.

Democrats in Ohio have seen the political tide turn hard against them over the past decade, and they have lost three races for governor, two out of four Senate campaigns and nearly every other statewide election, leaving Senator Sherrod Brown, 68, as a lonely Democrat holding high office there. Though Barack Obama won Ohio twice, Donald J. Trump carried it by eight percentage points in both 2016 and 2020.

In an interview with The Times on Monday evening, Ms. Whaley confirmed her interest in being a candidate in 2022 and said President Biden must move swiftly to deliver economic relief to the people in her state. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s it going to take for Democrats to get back in the game statewide?

We have all recognized, from the close governor’s race in ’18 and the tough presidential races, that we have to have an Ohio-specific message. So, regardless if it’s a federal race or a local race, there is a message like the message Sherrod Brown delivers that resonates very well in this state. It’s not necessarily being a moderate. It’s a message of being very real and talking about the issue that affects Ohioans the most, first — and that is the fact that for three decades, they have been working harder and harder and getting further behind.

The true civil war in the Republican Party gives Democrats in this state a great opportunity.

In a backward-looking way: Do you think Obama’s success in Ohio gave people an unrealistic sense of how purple it is, or do you think Trump’s strength there has given people an unrealistic sense of how red it is?

I think it’s both, honestly. I think what people forget about Ohio is, it’s an economic populist state, and its economic populism is why Sherrod does so well here. When Trump was like, “$2,000 stimulus checks for everyone,” I was like, “Absolutely, I agree with Trump, that’s right.”

What people want in Ohio — it’s not complicated. They want to work and they want to get paid decent for that work. It’s not rocket science. And over three decades, both parties have not been paying attention to that.

I think ’22 gives us a real opportunity to localize some of these issues in Ohio.

When you say “localize” — how much is that an admission that, look, the national brand and the national cultural orientation of the Democratic Party is just a big problem in Ohio?

I am frustrated sometimes with the national messaging, and it’s not just the Democratic Party. Just, a lot of times, the elitism that comes off from the coasts. That’s a challenge.

The Michigan Democratic message? That’s a good message for Ohio.

How does that elitism translate in the political message of the party?

It’s what we choose to talk about first.

You know, I was on a call this week with John Kerry and Gina McCarthy about the work on climate change, which we all agree on. But the key, for us, if you look at what Bill Peduto has moved forward with mayors from Ohio and the Ohio River Valley, the Marshall Plan for Middle America — we have to bring these jobs to the middle of the country.

It can’t just be, “This is great for the climate.” It’s also, “It’s a great job creator.” And that’s what we should lead with in these states.

Are there things that national Democrats talk about that you feel like, it’s not even a question of emphasis or angle, but it needs to not be on the agenda — period?

No, I don’t. I don’t think there’s anything like that. But I think what we lead with a lot of times comes off in a way that doesn’t resonate.

One of the challenges in our party is, we have a lot of smart people in the party and everyone wants to be the smartest person in the room. And shouldn’t we be focused on what makes people’s lives better, even if it’s a regular person’s idea?

Do you think Biden could have won the state?

Yes, I do.

What would it have taken?

Not to be in Covid. We did no voter reg in the state. They [Republicans] did.

And then we didn’t do any voter contact on the ground, and they did. I’m glad we saved lives, don’t get me wrong. But that affected our turnout in urban communities, it affected their turnout in rural communities. We did nothing.

What do you think people in Ohio need to see from Biden in the next year, or even in the next three months, in order to ——

They need the rescue package. They need to see that something is different, and it’s moving quickly. They need to see that they don’t have to worry every month on whether or not they’re going to get bailed out at the last minute on unemployment and eviction, even though it’s no fault of theirs that the pandemic happened to them, and that they happen to work on frontline jobs that people can’t go to now because the pandemic is raging. And that we’ve got their back.

Do you think they care about legislation like that being bipartisan, or do you think they just want it fast?

No. No. They want it fast. Nobody cares what happens in D.C. and who voted what. They just want it done, and we should provide that.

Where is your head, about your options for 2022?

We’re going to make the decision in the coming weeks. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement today, with probably every Ohio Democrat giving me their opinion on what I should do, which has been really nice.

Are both the governor’s race and the Senate race on the table?


Do you expect to be on the ballot, one way or the other?

I hope so.

If Jim Jordan decides to run [for Senate], it is highly likely he will win that primary. We recognize that the soul of our state is at stake, and that’s a motivation to all of us.

What would your message be to a Democrat from outside Ohio — let’s say someone on the coast — who looks at the results from the last election and the results from Georgia this month, and says, “Why are we even bothering in these states where we’re getting our [rear ends] kicked when there are states that are moving our way?”

I would say, there are four states that put Biden over, and they were won collectively by a little more than 100,000 votes. So, you ignore this, as a party, at your own peril. We won, decisively, the popular vote, but democracy is really at stake if we don’t pay attention to places like Ohio.

You look at the Senate, you look at our long-term play, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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