Ohio Democrats face March Senate primary they hoped to avoid

The state party endorsed former Gov. Ted Strickland hoping to force Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld from the race, that strategy didn’t work.

While Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stage a lower-profile battle to win the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination than their Republican counterparts, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld are performing a version of that drama on an even smaller stage.

Both want to defeat Republican Sen. Rob Portman in 2016. But first, they will run against each other in the March 15 primary.

Like Clinton, Strickland has a long resume and something close to legendary status within the party. And like Sanders, Sittenfeld has run on a populist platform, trying to offer an alternative that fires up young voters and a new generation of Democrats.

Ohio Democrats tried to avoid this battle by endorsing Strickland early on in the primary fight. But as January approaches, Sittenfeld has made it very clear he’s not going away.

He’s sending out press releases bashing Portman. He’s releasing policy statements on everything from climate change to guns. He’s out on the stump.

Strickland relying on ‘almost a coronation’

Strickland, comparatively, is relatively quiet. He’s appearing at small Democratic county functions around the state, but hasn’t rushed to issue statements on the XL pipeline or gun control in the wake of shootings in Colorado and California. He has, so far, refused to debate Sittenfeld.

Strickland, said former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart, who has not endorsed in the race, “is doing virtually everything he can to avoid saying substantive things at this time. I don’t know how long you can continue to do that.”

“Ted’s relying on almost a coronation in Ohio,” the Cleveland Democrat said, “turning out the most loyal name ID recognizing voters.”

“Strickland is hiding,” said Gerald Austin, a Sittenfeld supporter and Ohio Democratic consultant. “You can find him at the Highland County Democratic dinner but you can’t find him anywhere else. He hasn’t made one political statement at all. Eventually if Ted Strickland doesn’t want to tell people what he’s for, somebody’s going to tell people where he’s been.”

He may be quiet because he can be: An Oct. 8 Quinnipiac University poll has Strickland leading Portman 46 to 43 percent. Portman leads Sittenfeld 49 to 27 percent.

Strickland also has a slim fundraising lead over Sittenfeld. At the end of last quarter, Sittenfeld had about $784,000 on hand. Strickland had about $1.5 million. Portman, meanwhile, had a whopping $11.1 million.

“It could well be his strategy is to ignore his opponent in the primary and plunge ahead,” said Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University.

“He’s well-known to Ohio,” he said. “He was a popular governor. Even in a down economy, he came close to being re-elected.”

Strickland lost his re-election bid to John Kasich in 2010, 49-47 percent.

Polls show big Strickland lead

Beck said Strickland’s strategy may reflect what polls tell him: That he is set to win the primary.

“If they found P.G. is picking up steam, they might go after him, but we probably won’t see that,” he said.

Others say Strickland is in it to win it. He’s just out on the trail instead of sending out releases and policy plans.

“Everybody else is in little offices,” said David Leland, a Strickland supporter. “Ted is the guy that’s out there talking to people every day. He’s doing retail, person-to-person campaigning better than anybody.”

He has no question about Strickland’s abilities. “I think Ted Strickland is going to win overwhelmingly in the state of Ohio,” he said.

David Bergstein, a Strickland spokesman, said Strickland has been campaigning across the state, visiting half of the counties in the state so far.

“Former Governor Strickland is campaigning hard on issues that impact working people — that’s where he comes from and that’s who he’ll always put first in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “Over the last several months Ted’s been talking with voters across Ohio about how we can tackle middle class challenges like stagnating wages, retirement security and student loan debt.”

He said Strickland’s campaign is “continuing to gain incredible momentum, and is entering 2016 strongly positioned for victory.”

Greg Beswick, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Strickland and the ODP have worked hand-in-hand campaigning. “When you see ODP putting together a ground game, you should also look at it as a Strickland ground game,” he said.

He said Strickland has made policy speeches in everywhere from Chillicothe to Marion, talking about issues such as student loan debt and college affordability.

“You’ll see a lot more of Ted Strickland after the first of the year when people start to focus on next year’s election,” he said.

Despite those assurances, some wonder if Strickland is less visible because his own policy positions don’t necessarily jibe with the Democrats running for president.

Strickland, who served southeast Ohio for six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, owes his career to blue collar Democrats in southeast Ohio – a more moderate group than Sittenfeld might represent. But it makes things complicated on issues such as gun rights and coal – issues where southeast Ohio is solidly to the right of more urban-dwelling Democrats.

Strickland, said Jim Ruvolo, a Sittenfeld supporter, “comes from a wing of the party that’s more conservative. In a Democratic primary that doesn’t help you.”

Coal is also going to be a problem area for him, said Eckart. Clinton spoke out strongly in support of cleaner energy to defeat climate change and “Ted’s from coal country. Down there, they refer to it as ‘Obama’s job killing EPA.”

“Ted is 180 degrees from Hillary on this,” Eckart said. ”In the part of the country Ted wins very well, Republicans are going to be hammering Hillary.”

But that’s also a potential hurdle for Portman. Portman, Eckart said, ran originally as a center-right Republican. If Sens. Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio are the GOP nominee, he said, that will drive Portman farther right than he would prefer.

“The problem is all the potential nominees for president are further away from where Ted and Rob would need to be,” Eckart said. “That’s the huge dichotomy I see emerging … I see seeds already planted for Strickland and Portman in fall 2016 growing into very big and difficult trees for them to climb.”

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