There’s a cardinal rule of campaigns: front runners coasting to a likely victory don’t go negative.

Lee Fisher is sitting on a seven-point lead against Jennifer Brunner, according to  the latest Quinnipiac.  So why would Fisher need to go negative?  Because Lee Fisher’s “lead” has more caveats than Mark McGwire’s baseball stats.

The first problem for Fisher is that a whopping 40% of the likely Democratic vote is still undecided.  That alone is more than enough for Brunner to come out on top.  Second, the Quinnpiac poll is the first poll to show Fisher break into the 30s… at 33%.  On top of it all, Quinnipiac says that 65% of likely Democratic voter admit that they could likely change their mind before they vote.  That’s after several millions in fundraising, spending, and more endorsements than on Ricky Bobby’s stock car.

Oh, and did I mention that this lead is technically smaller than from the last Quinnipiac poll (a statistically insignificant two points in Brunner’s favor?)  So the polling in this race shows a lead, but one that is as soft as air.

Ever since there was a Brunner-Fisher primary, many folks observed that it had an echo of the last significantly contested Democratic primary in Ohio, the 1994 contest between newcomer/institutional favorite Joel Hyatt and then Cuyahoga County Commissioner Mary Boyle.

It’s not a great analogy for Fisher to find himself in.  Like Fisher, Hyatt had a one-sided fundraising and endorsement advantage. However, there is one key difference between this race and 1994.  With a month left in the primary, Joel Hyatt was polling better than Lee Fisher is.

Here’s a poll literally taking roughly the same time period in 1994 that the most recent Quinnipiac poll was done:

Dem. Voters All Men Women Favorability Unfavor. Id.
Joel Hyatt 39% 40% 38% 34 13 86
Mary Boyle 29% 27% 31% 32 8 66

Lee Fisher is generally polling six points worse than Hyatt was at the same point in 1994, sitting on a smaller lead, and polling worse with both men and women than Hyatt did at the same point.  Amazingly, Fisher polls about the same as Hyatt does on favorability.  However, Fisher has about double the number of undecideds as Hyatt was facing.

Now here’s how the 1994 Senate primary turned out:

Hyatt: 46.2%

Boyle: 44.8%

That’s less than a two-point victory a month later despite the fact that Hyatt was a millionaire who could self-finance his campaign and Boyle’s campaign had virtually no money.  Hyatt’s ten-point lead almost entirely disappeared.  If the same size swing that occurred in 1994 occurs on election day, Jennifer Brunner will be the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.  However, the polling differences suggests Brunner could see an even larger swing at the ballot box than Boyle did.

And this makes Lee Fisher’s entire campaign pale.  The ghost of the Joel Hyatt ’94 Senate primary haunts their ever thought.  That’s why Lee Fisher has decided to go negative despite being viewed as the front runner, but it could be yet another attack by Lee Fisher that backfires.

During that same year, Lee was trying to build a firewall around himself from the oncoming Democratic onslaught due to an incredibly weak statewide ticket.  His general election opponent was then-State Senator Betty Montgomery.

Seeing that Lee’s polling numbers were a concern, Fisher decided to spend the remaining weeks of the campaign going negative on Montgomery.  The ads were roundly criticized as unfair and vicious because Fisher was attacking Montgomery because when she was a county prosecutor her office entered into a plea deal regarding a defendant accused of raping a child.  Scott Piepho told the story as well as anyone last June:

Montgomery’s office was able to document why the case was pled down, the papers generally went against Fisher, the campaign backed down and his lead in the polls slipped. Then he did it. Again. We couldn’t believe it. The exact same scenario all over again. And again his lead dwindled.

What it looked like was a politician with poor political instincts overreacting to campaign events and unable to say no to his staff.

And that’s how Betty Montgomery became Attorney General.

Lee Fisher’s knack of having all the advantages in the world, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is legendary.  It’s so predictable and precise that its used to calibrate the atomic clock at the Naval Observatory.

Lee Fisher’s decision to go negative on Brunner has nothing to do with anything but blind fear that yet another statewide election is getting away from him.  That he might not be as fortunate as Joel Hyatt and survive.

And that’s why every paper that noted Fisher’s attack yesterday of Brunner also noted:

His e-mailed comments were his most critical so far in the campaign, in which he has enjoyed a large fundraising advantage over Brunner but led by only single digits in recent polls, with many voters undecided.

Time will tell.

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