COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Warming up a crowd with a joke is a trick of the political trade. Republican Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted had, no doubt, used the technique successfully dozens of times before.
But one day last September, it was going very badly.
Husted, 53, was back in southwest Ohio, where he had spent decades as a college football star, business professional and state lawmaker, to kick off a campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump’s reelection. His joke was an attempt to promote mask-wearing. Not only did the crowd not laugh, they booed.
“All right, I get it,” he finally said, awkwardly ending his joke about those forced to wear masks in grocery stores being able to “at least say that you’re trying to save the country” by wearing a Trump 2020-themed face covering. Even though he was there to promote the work he and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine were doing to elect Trump, someone heckled: “Get off the stage.”
It was a seminal moment for Husted, the righthand man to a governor who has caught continuous grief from the Trump wing of the party for Ohio’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Facing such reception, Husted has increasingly been using provocative rhetoric on social media over the past year — punctuated most recently by a tweet using the phrase “Wuhan Virus,” decried by health experts and Asian Americans as inflammatory — even as he presents a moderate tone in regular coronavirus briefings.
Husted started 2020 as one of Ohio’s rising Republican stars. Following an uninterrupted two-decade climb from state representative to House speaker to state senator to secretary of state and, now, lieutenant governor, his next stop is supposed to be the Governor’s residence.
But his party’s hard turn to the right — including, for many, a deep hatred of COVID-19 restrictions — has required deft recalculation.
University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven said Husted is 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 single most important fact in this whole story is that Husted attended and spoke at Trump rallies last fall and was booed,” Niven said. “You don’t need anything more than that to know that the most excited, active members of the Republican Party are skeptical about DeWine and Husted.”
Husted has spent the past year standing beside DeWine, the 74-year-old governor initially showered with bipartisan praise and then pilloried by fellow Republicans for his aggressive pandemic response. As DeWine’s technology chief, he’s outlined ambitious plans like expanding broadband access and making technology credits available to young Ohioans.