Republican Mike DeWine's ice cream social on Sunday wasn't just about dairy treats — it was about making a show of force ahead of what's expected to be a tight race for Ohio's leading party this fall.
"Republicans are fired up," U.S. Sen. Rob Portman declared, kicking off speeches at the annual Americana-infused event in southwestern Ohio. "We are united as a party in ways that, frankly, I haven't seen recently. Yes, it was a tough primary. That's what primaries are about; people are engaged and involved. But we've come together as a party."
It was a message that was driven home throughout the afternoon, and for good reason.
More Democrats than Republicans supported Ohio's Republican governor, vocal Trump detractor John Kasich, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci blistered DeWine and running mate Jon Husted, the secretary of state, as "Columbus fat cats" before leaving the governor's race to run for Senate this winter. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor continued the onslaught through Election Day, and skirted questions about endorsing DeWine's ticket as recently as Friday.
In the shaded grove of his historic homestead, DeWine took the unusual step of gathering the entire statewide ticket on the stage to give speeches, to repeat their names over and over again and to urge the Republican faithful to vote and to get others to vote.
The messaging comes as polls show DeWine's race against Democrat Richard Cordray, the former federal consumer watchdog, is statistically tied. The race between Renacci and Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown is also potentially tight for Brown, giving Republicans a fighting chance against one of Ohio's best known politicians.
Republicans are working to counteract suggestions that their party is fractured amid the actions of a divisive president and a difficult primary.
On Sunday, DeWine made light of the bitterness of the primary, which strategists concede left one of Ohio's longest serving and well-liked politicians at least temporarily damaged.
Referring to his merger with Husted, a former gubernatorial rival, DeWine said Sunday, "The politics of it make a lot of sense. I don't think I have to explain that to anybody. Instead of a bruising, horrible primary, the two of us were together — and we still had a bruising, horrible primary."
Sunday's event drew DeWine supporters from across the GOP's ideological spectrum — from conservative former Congresswoman Jean Schmidt to moderate former Gov. Bob Taft. But it also faced the optics problem of Renacci being missing. His campaign said Renacci couldn't rearrange an appearance sponsored by the Republican National Committee, and DeWine took the opportunity to praise him from the stage.
Neither Kasich nor Taylor attended the event, either. A spokesman said Kasich wasn't intentionally absent but has never attended. DeWine's spokesman, Josh Eck, said all statewide officials were invited.
Taft said he's optimistic that Ohio Republicans can overcome their disagreements over the president and fallout from the expensive, nasty primary.
"November's a long time away," he said. He recalled the "terrible" 1970 primary between his father, the late Sen. Robert Taft Jr., and Jim Rhodes. Taft Jr. won the primary and came back to win the general election and become Senator, Taft recalled.
But Taft wondered aloud about what all the Ohio voters who supported Trump will do this fall. An analysis released last week of Ohio party-switching showed double the number of Republicans switched to vote Democratic in the primary as the other way around. And it's a mystery how many Republicans who supported Taylor — and other Trump-aligning candidates — will decide to stay home.
"DeWine and Husted have great experience, especially DeWine, at running a statewide campaign. They know what it takes," Taft said. "That's great, but that's not a magic bullet. Running in this time of Trump is a huge challenge for anybody to get their message out, if their message isn't about him."
From underneath a shady tree — and the brim of a Make America Great Again cap — at Sunday's event, loyal Republican Jeff Halley, of Gallia, said he doesn't believe Trump will be a problem for Republicans this fall.
"When it's all said and done, and the dust has settled, I think Mike DeWine's going to be our next governor," said Halley, a Trump voter and executive chairman of his county GOP. "There's no comparison, in my opinion, from him and Mr. Cordray. Others may feel differently, but I'm a Republican and I'm supporting the ticket."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the results of the 1970 Republican primary and general election.