Keith BieryGolick, Cincinnati Enquirer
FAIRFIELD TWP., Ohio – She never said her name.
She didn’t have to. She said enough about a “culture of toxicity” and “toxic extremism” to make her point – one the Democrat hopes will help in an overwhelmingly Republican district.
In an interview a day before announcing her candidacy for Ohio Senate, Kathy Wyenandt spoke about her farmhouse, which she bought last year and serves as her campaign headquarters. She spoke about issues with school funding, which is what initially led her down a rabbit-hole of politics. She spoke about guns.
And, of course, she spoke about Dayton. That meant speaking about state Rep. Candice Keller, too.
Wyenandt had been doing a lot of talking on Thursday. Her campaign scheduled interview after interview with reporters to drum up publicity for a never-elected candidate who knows she is facing an uphill battle.
In 2016, the incumbent Republican candidate for Ohio Senate District 4 won re-election by 36 points and more than doubled the vote total of the Democratic candidate. That Republican, Sen. Bill Coley, is term-limited.
Sitting at a table near two maps of Butler County taped to the wall, Wyenandt spoke about how she couldn’t sleep the night of the Dayton shooting. She woke up sometime around 2 a.m. on Sunday, about an hour after the shooting had started. When she checked her phone, unable to fall back to sleep, she saw the news.
A 24-year-old had killed nine people in the Oregon District. Police had killed him.
Wyenandt’s oldest daughter is studying communication at Ohio State University. That’s about 70 miles away from Dayton, but it’s exactly the type of place her 21-year-old daughter would hang out. Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
“It could have been there,” she thought.
“It’s only a matter of time,” she thought.
“We’re not safe anywhere,” she thought.
911 callers reported the shooter’s description, the location of victims and others struggling just to figure out what to do. Cincinnati Enquirer
Before the shooting came up, Wyenandt told me she is running for office because of a “culture of toxicity” she says has invaded politics. The Democrat’s campaign slogan is “people over politics,” something she mentioned multiple times.
“It’s past time we elect a reasonable senator,” she said.
“People are ready for reasonable representation,” she said.
Later, and not for the first time, she denounced “toxic extremism.”
“I’ll say it again,” she said.
What she never said was Keller’s name, even when directly asked about her.
In a Facebook post, Keller blamed “drag queen advocates,” the Democratic Congress, former President Barack Obama, violent video games and the hatred of veterans for the violence in Dayton.
“After every mass shooting, Liberals play the blame game,” she wrote. “Why not place the blame where it belongs?”
Wyenandt, who officially announced her candidacy on Friday, said she was going to run no matter what. But she said Keller’s Facebook post “certainly was another reason.”
“It’s wrong,” Wyenandt said.
I visited Candice Keller’s home this week.
I heard she had been receiving threats following her Facebook post and wanted to talk to her about it. She released a statement saying she wouldn’t resign, but hasn’t said much else publicly.
She called the police on me.
When I visited her home in Middletown, there was a sheriff’s vehicle parked outside. No one was in it. I walked past a large brick entrance with “KELLER” written on it and a sign saying cameras were recording.
Her doormat had the Ohio House of Representatives seal on it. Keller’s husband opened the door before I could knock.
He was nice. We spoke for a few minutes, and he thanked me for being polite. I gave him a business card with a note written for his wife, shook his hand and left.
The next day, I received a call from the Middletown Police Department. An officer told me Keller had filed a police report. I wasn’t being criminally charged, the officer said, but reporters weren’t welcome at the Keller home.
In a 911 call, Keller said she was scared.
Keller’s controversial week is probably the reason Wyenandt announced her candidacy today. But to be clear, Keller must win a three-way Republican primary before then.
First, Keller will have to defeat state Rep. George Lang and West Chester Township Trustee Lee Wong. Lang, a prodigious fundraiser, will likely be supported by the local and state GOP. Wong, known as an exhaustive campaigner, has been criticized for being too moderate in the past.
The winner of that primary will be a big favorite to win a general election.
Wyenandt, 44, ran for state representative last year. She is a member of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board of trustees but has never held public office. She’s been a central committee chairwoman before and says she has helped with tax-levy campaigns for Lakota Schools.
The Democrat, who lives in Liberty Township, received about 42 percent of the vote last year. Her Republican opponent, Lang, won with 58 percent.
That might seem like a lopsided loss, but it was much better than Democrats had previously done in that district. In 2016, Democrats couldn’t field a candidate. In 2014, the Democrat candidate received 24 percent of the vote. In 2012, the Democrat received 27 percent.
This Ohio Senate district encompasses all of Butler County, a Republican stronghold where no Democrats hold partisan countywide positions – and haven’t since 2000.
Ohio’s Democratic Party has indicated it will support Wyenandt and likely sees Keller as beatable, because of her controversial tendencies. That hasn’t hurt Keller, who has often clashed with local Republican powers, in the past.
Wyenandt graduated from Fairfield High School and studied political science and psychology at Miami University. While she was campaigning, she said people told her they’d never met a local Democratic candidate in person before.
In an interview, Wyenandt said she supports universal background checks and red flag laws, which would allow police or family to ask a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone considered dangerous. But Wyenandt also has a concealed carry weapon permit and her family owns guns.
“People have gotten into their corners,” Wyenandt said. “Real leaders bring people together.”