With Pandemic Surging, Ohio Gov. DeWine Dials Back His Aggressive Response
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With Pandemic Surging, Ohio Gov. DeWine Dials Back His Aggressive Response

In an effort to lighten the heavy mood from COVID-19, graphic artist Eric Shanteau made a "DeWine Is Watching" cutout of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's face and took photos of it in various locations around the Toledo suburb of Maumee. (Eric Shanteau)

Eric Shanteau didn’t know he was about to create a viral pandemic meme when he made a cutout of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s head with two fingers pointing at his eyes, photographed the smiling visage in various strategic, comedic locations around the Toledo suburb of Maumee, and then posted the images online.

He also didn’t know that the Republican governor was that day in mid-November visiting Toledo after announcing new coronavirus restrictions to counter an alarming surge in the state’s infection rates.

Shanteau, a graphic artist, was hoping to give a few friends a little lift in the face of the worsening health crisis by taking pictures of his “DeWine Is Watching” prop peering around corners, over fences and from bushes.

“The last few weeks, it kind of punched me in the stomach again, just being overwhelmed,” said Shanteau, about the “skyrocketing” local case numbers. “It’s hard to laugh or smile lately. It’s kind of a scary thing, and anybody that knows me personally knows that I just want to make people laugh all the time. And that was my intention.”

But his bid to lighten things up ended up offering a window into the darkening mood of the state and the pressures mounting on DeWine. On one side are most Ohioans, weary of the pandemic but wanting the governor to maintain his highly praised, aggressive response. On the other — largely on the right wing of the Republican Party — there is a growing clamor for DeWine to dial back restrictions as well as accusations that he’s abusing his authority.

Shanteau saw it in the reaction to his image, which a surprising number of people used to craft Christmas tree ornaments. It’s also shown up printed on at least one bakery’s cookies, casting DeWine as a sort of creepy Santa with the caption “He knows when you’re sleeping.” Then there are harsher uses on Twitter in which the smiling DeWine is deployed to make accusations of tyranny and a “totalitarian agenda.”

DeWine is feeling that pressure, particularly from growing numbers of Republicans who see mask mandates and other restrictions as overly intrusive limitations on their freedom, said Lauren Copeland, a political science professor at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.

“He’s in a tough spot,” said Copeland. “He really has to walk a tightrope between balancing public safety while maintaining a healthy economy, and also making it seem like people’s liberties aren’t under threat.”

DeWine is up for reelection in 2022, and he would have seemed to be in a secure position after his initial COVID response won plaudits across the spectrum, even as the leader of his party, President Donald Trump, sought to play down the threat.

DeWine declared a state of emergency on March 9 on the advice of his then-health director, Dr. Amy Acton, when just three people were known to be infected in Ohio. He closed schools three days later and mandated one of the earliest state lockdowns. He also won praise for his near-daily, level-headed briefings with Acton.

His approval ratings for handling the virus climbed to 85% in the Great Lakes Poll conducted by Baldwin Wallace and other universities in late April.

But a backlash was already brewing as Trump called lockdowns and other health-based restrictions worse than the disease itself.

Acton bore the brunt of early dissatisfaction. After being taunted with anti-Semitic slurs and having gun-toting protesters show up at her home in May, state officials gave her a security detail. That month, the Ohio House of Representatives voted to limit her power to issue health orders. She ultimately resigned.

DeWine’s overall approval remained high through the summer, but took a 13-point hit in a late September survey, falling to 72%. Republicans’ dissatisfaction with him jumped from 13% in April to 28%.

After Acton left, statehouse Republicans shifted their sights to the governor, recently passing a bill that would subject his health measures to legislative approval. And four Republican state lawmakers filed articles of impeachment against him last week.

DeWine responded to the changing landscape with an approach that critics see as less aggressive. With cases spiking past 480,000 and the fatality count surpassing 7,000 as of Tuesday, he ventured in recent weeks only as far as instituting a curfew while allowing businesses to remain open with stepped-up mask enforcement. This week, he announced that the curfew, which was slated to expire, would continue.

DeWine has framed his latest moves as an attempt to better balance the state’s response based on lessons learned from the shutdown.

“We don’t want to have a total lockdown in Ohio,” DeWine told reporters on the day of his Toledo trip. “Why not? Well, there’s a lot of bad things that happen.”

He cited potential mental health and addiction problems among residents, difficulties for kids out of school, child abuse and economic impacts. Just before Thanksgiving, in a news conference with four doctors from around the state warning the health care system was in dire straits, DeWine stuck by his approach, saying it was up to Ohioans to turn the numbers around.

“The most important thing — every one of these doctors will tell you — is what individuals do in their own lives,” DeWine said. “This comes down to personal responsibility.”

Democratic strategists watching DeWine don’t see any principle in his latest moves.

“DeWine won praise from a number of folks on the other side of the aisle when the pandemic started, myself included,” said Justin Barasky, who managed Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2018 reelection victory. “But fairly quickly he cowered in the face of ‘Trump World.’ It’s not a secret that there are Republicans looking at ‘primarying’ him in the state. It’s unfortunate because it’s going to kill people.”

Trump himself has tweeted that DeWine deserves to be challenged, and there are some high-profile Republican critics such as former Rep. Jim Renacci and current Rep. Jim Jordan who could take a shot.

Republicans who know DeWine are offended both by suggestions of political calculation and the more Trumpian salvos winging in from the right.

“A Democrat who would suggest that DeWine is caving to political pressure here just doesn’t know the man,” said Ryan Stubenrauch, a consultant who worked for DeWine when he was attorney general and in his campaign for governor. “This is a guy who spent a long time in politics — 30-plus years — and he has never wilted in the face of public pressure.”

That includes pressure from Republicans. “Just because a couple of morons in the Ohio General Assembly say stupid things, that is not anything that would certainly factor into the governor’s process,” Stubenrauch said.

Still, if the governor wants to remain governor, he has to be aware of the threat.

“That’s a political risk that’s very much in play for DeWine,” Copeland said. “If he wants to stay in office, he can’t put measures in place that are too restrictive.”

Shanteau, the graphic artist, said he was a little nervous when he made his DeWine cutout because he knows the pandemic stirs up political passions. He took the chance anyway, and he’s glad he did.

Some people asked to buy the cutouts and that helped him raise enough money to buy 11 family Thanksgiving dinners and grocery store gift cards for another 15 families in need. And although people sometimes had entirely opposite reasons for laughing at the meme, most did laugh. Shanteau found his own glimmer of hope in that bit of unity.

“I know people who were asking me for the signs that did not agree with the governor one bit,” Shanteau said. “And then there were others — nurses — that asked for them that just maybe wanted to brighten someone’s day for what they’re going through right now. … It was unbelievable.”