In the last few years, I’ve really warmed to Ted Strickland, like everyone does.  I’m really saddened by his defeat, and I wish him and Frances nothing but the best.  However, Ted has to be handed some serious responsibility for his loss, and consequently, the loss of every statewide office in the state.  So what’s that responsibility?

Ted ran a great campaign, no doubt, in an impossible environment.  You can quibble with a few decisions here and there, but overall, it was beyond professional – any statewide candidate, anywhere, would kill to have that operation.  The problem, as has always been my criticism of Ted, is that it was almost entirely tactical, as was the rationale for Ted’s election in the first place, as has been Ted’s stewardship of ODP.

The Strickland/Redfern addiction to tactical politics aggravated Democrats’ biggest problem, which as always, is message.  Message beats tactics, every time, and it did so in 2010 in Ohio.  Ted has never gotten beyond that.  For example, if someone asked me to sum up “What Ted Strickland Stands For”, I honestly couldn’t tell you in 2006 when he first ran, couldn’t tell you now, and neither could most Democrats.

It’s always tempting to think you can use tactics to wind your way out of an empty message.  Two examples.  I admit, I thought the NRA endorsement, and Kasich’s response on the issue, was enough to win the state in a close race.  Any campaign would be tempted to wrap that constituency up for themselves long term.  Another is Kasich’s education “plan”, which Ted used masterfully to argue that Kasich would eliminate local school districts.

In this economy, though, is that a message?  Or is it just another way to piece together a few votes here, a few votes there, and hope they add up to 50%+1?  Many will argue that Ted was too Republican-Lite, not progressive enough.  I probably agree with them.  But I think you can survive that sentiment in a close re-election battle if you also govern, both your state and your party, based on a message rather than on a mathematical calculation.

This tactical addiction to math, rather than message, really took root in much bigger decisions, though, which Ted Strickland made himself, and whose fruits left him extremely vulnerable in a close election to activist disengagement.

The decision to bring Lee Fisher onto the ticket in 2006 was entirely tactical.  It took away a primary opponent in 2006, Eric Fingerhut, for the sole reason that Fingerhut and Fisher counted on precisely the same base of support – Northeast Ohio Jewish Democrats who raise money.  Tactically, genius.  Long term strategically?  Catastrophic.  Sticking with Lee as he decided to run for US Senate, a decision likely made when Lee joined the ticket, cost Ted his job.

Tactical decision making by Ted Strickland brought us Marc Dann, and then his replacement, Rich Cordray, who also lost.  Tactical decision making by Ted Strickland put Chris Redfern at the helm of ODP, whose election to chair laid seeds of resentment across this state that still simmer on a low boil (getting hotter right about now, too), particularly in the black community.  And tactical decision making by Ted Strickland resulted in an endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2008, which built further on resentment in the black community.

All of this adds up to a grassroots activist base that was simply never going to engage in 2010 to the degree it engaged in 2008, or 2006.  There are probably hundreds of people who refused to volunteer this fall based on the Brunner-Fisher primary alone.  Barack Obama’s operation, Organizing For America, the backbone of Ted’s re-election effort, probably suffered from this same disengagement in 2010 over the Hillary endorsement in 2008.  Turnout in African American precincts, always low, has to have been affected by all of this, too.

Democrats remember this stuff.  Especially the hard core activists.  You can’t consistently aggravate your most loyal supporters, on a host of issues, both substantive and political, and expect them to bust their asses for you in a mid-term election conducted in a tsunami environment.

Close election losses have a lot of blame to go around.  I don’t think Ted escapes unscathed, largely because of a systemic culture of political calculation, warned against but perpetuated, to the point that a lot of Ohio Democrats just decided, you know what Ted, be my guest, go ahead and try to re-elect yourself.

Breaks my heart to say it, too.  Really, it does.  Because Ted Strickland is such a great human being.  Good luck in all you do, Ted.  And thank you.

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