[Disclosure: I worked for then-Congressman Ted Strickland and lived down the street from the Stricklands growing up and I make no bones about supporting Ted Strickland’s Senate bid.]
As it relates to a possible Senate primary between former Congressman and Governor Ted Strickland and two-term Cincinnati councilperson P.G. Sittenfeld, I’ve heard a vocal minority of Democrats wave the 2014 elections as evidence of why we must have a primary. Here’s why this thinking is completely wrong, and if anything, the opposite is true. At least, once it became clear Strickland entered the race. The argument is based on the notion that the party made a mistake in endorsing FitzGerald and should have encouraged a robust and competitive primary, and we shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in the Senate race. It is entirely based on a faulty assumption that there was a long line of Democratic candidates who wanted to take on Governor John Kasich in a midterm election where turnout historically favors the Republicans and that the ’14 Governor’s race is comparable to the ’16 Senate race.
Here’s the obvious: Ted Strickland is not Ed FitzGerald. Strickland has been involved in nearly half a dozen nationally targeted congressional races and two nationally targeted gubernatorial races. He’s been vetted. He’s a known quantity. Unlike Sittenfeld who is largely unknown, especially outside of Cincinnati, and who has only faced at-large municipal elections in which rival campaigns do not focus on the other candidates. We know, unlike with FitzGerald, that Strickland can raise money to be competitive with Republicans just as he has done in every election he’s run. So what’s to “vet?”
Shall we play a game? The alternative universe of the ’14 Ohio elections.
Now, let’s game out the alternative universe in which FitzGerald had a contested primary (and ignore that he actually did have a primary but assume a more credible opponent ran.) Let’s also ignore that the only person to openly consider such a challenge was Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune who couldn’t get the signatures necessary to make the ballot and chose a running mate who then tried to run as an independent to challenge an incumbent Democratic state senator. But let’s pretend there was some mythical Democrat waiting in the wings who never publicly came forward to say they’d like to run for Governor.
First, tell me who that alternative candidate would have been who didn’t already either explicitly or implicitly publicly already decline to run well before the Ohio Democratic Party endorsed FitzGerald in September 2013 when he was the only declared candidate running. Then, you have to assume that nominee (whether it’s FitzGerald or this hypothetical person who never arose in 2013-2014) would have close to no money at the end of such a contested primary. But hey, let’s say the eventual nominee in this scenario banked a million for the general. Even in that scenario, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate would leave the primary at a financial disadvantage of 9.3 to 1 since John Kasich reported already $9.3 million on hand after the primaries.
So such a nominee would already be at a larger financial disadvantage than FitzGerald was and may even have issues getting the party unified after the primary. Now, show me the path to victory that existed in this scenario that didn’t exist in what actually happened. Without addressing each of these issues, the argument that ODP should not have cleared the field for FitzGerald (to the extent that the field was not already clear) falls flat. Simply because we lost and lost huge does not mean that the decision to endorse FitzGerald was an error. It’s just didn’t move us from a path to defeat to one of victory. We need to stop being so knee jerk reflexive and assume everything we did in one cycle where we lost must have been the cause of the loss and should be avoided at all costs.
Amazingly, I have seen some try to use 2014 even further to argue for why we need a “fresh face” instead of Strickland. This argument makes absolutely zero sense to me. Except for David Pepper (who run statewide only as recently as four years earlier), the 2014 ticket was entirely fresh faces. The downside of that in a challenger race is then the challenger must have the resources to both build their candidate’s identity to overcome the opposition’s attempt to define them while also making the case against the incumbent’s re-election. Ed FitzGerald lacked the resources to do either. With a more experienced and known candidate, the race can quickly become about the incumbent because the incumbent cannot really move the needle much on an already well-known figure.
And we can see that in the coverage of the race so far. While Sittenfeld is touting Huffington Post articles from his sister touting his background, Ted Strickland is openly making the case against Rob Portman. Strickland has the luxury of refocusing the race on the incumbent because voters already know him. To win, the more we make the race a referendum on the incumbent and Republican control of the U.S. Senate, the better our chances of winning.
The 2006 Senate race
Many of the same arguments being discussed now are incredibly similar to those raised in 2006 when it appeared the party favored Sherrod Brown over Paul Hackett in that Senate race. We were told that progressives wouldn’t be excited by Brown (even though he was far more progressive than the conservative Hackett was, in reality). We heard talk about Brown being old news after being in Congress for years after being the Ohio Secretary of State, and the party needing a “fresh face.” Some of us even said in the aftermath of Hackett getting out that ODP and the DSCC had all but guaranteed DeWine’s re-election because grassroots Democrats were so discouraged by Hackett being pushed out.
Yet, it is hard to argue that history hasn’t validated clearing the field for Brown. ODP, in fact, cleared the field in ’06 for the entire slate and won all statewide nonjudicial races except State Auditor. The doomsayers wanting a primary were proven wrong. Over on the GOP side, they’ve avoided contested primaries in just about every statewide election I can imagine. The only exception was the 2006 in which they had contested primaries for Governor, Treasurer and Attorney General. In 2010, the Ohio GOP avoided primaries in both Governor and Attorney General. So, tell me again how having primaries are better for a party to win in November? Because Ohio’s political history suggests otherwise. And don’t bother raising presidential races. Except when there’s an incumbent, both parties typically have contested nomination fights, so it’s mutual assured destruction. Do you really think Mitt Romney and John McCain were made better candidates from their primary fights, or did it force them to lurch right and commit to supporting policies that made them less attractive in the general election?
The 2010 Senate primary
Let’s look at the most recent hotly contested statewide primary fight we had in Ohio.
Conversely, we (and by we, I take a great deal of personal responsibility for it) waged a public campaign to keep ODP from clearing the field for Lee Fisher in ’10 in support for Jennifer Brunner. Many of the same arguments for a primary then are being discussed now. I should know: I raised them. Lee Fisher spent over $3 million to defeat Jennifer Brunner in that primary. And although ODP did not endorse in that race, the acrimony in the party was bad enough that it might as well have. Fisher won the nomination only to have a substantial financial disadvantage and a divided party. Am I saying that Jennifer Brunner cost Lee Fisher the election or that he may have won had he not had to spend that $3 million? No, nor am I saying ODP should have cleared the field for Fisher. The environment and turnout that year was so decidedly Republican that Portman would like win had there not been a primary and regardless of whether Brunner or Fisher had been the nominee. But you would be hard pressed to make the case that such a primary benefited the party or our chances to win in the fall. I welcome you to try.
2016 will be a presidential election year where the turnout in Ohio will be decidedly more Democratic than the GOP high tide turnout year of 2010. Could avoiding $3 million in a contested primary potentially affect the general election outcome? Are you willing to bet the control of the Senate that it couldn’t? Could Rob Portman really be that lucky to have us repeat history?
Strickland’s opponent, though, is no Jennifer Brunner. He’s never run, let alone win, a statewide campaign. In fact, he’s never won any election but two at-large municipal races. So, yes, an argument could be made that Sittenfeld, if he were to be our sole candidate, needs to be better vetted through the primary process before we decide to hand him the nomination for a nationally important race that could very well determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. But the same cannot be said of Strickland. That is a rite of political passage he has long since cleared. That’s why the DSCC, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, Congressman Tim Ryan, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, and Columbus City Council President/Mayoral candidate Andrew Ginther have all already endorsed Strickland.
Remember your history, Ohio Democrats, and widen your gaze and your mind beyond just the 2014 election. The purpose of our political party is to win elections, not be an esoteric debate society. Primaries can serve a positive purpose, but historically, they have caused more harm than good for our party.