Francis Strickland opened a Democratic Party office in Athens here in Southeast Ohio a couple weeks ago. She played campaign-themed folk songs on the guitar and deployed all of her southern Ohio charm on behalf of her husband, Ted, the former governor challenging U.S. Sen. Rob Portman for this election cycle’s most crucial Senatorial seat.
Strickland noted that more than $35 million has been spent in the race against her husband on behalf of so-called super PACs.
“They’re picking on my guy every chance they, and we just aren’t going to let them get by with it, are we,” she asked before recounting Strickland’s history with Athens, his childhood in Appalachia, and his role representing the southeast Ohio region in U.S. Congress before becoming governor.
“I feel like Ted’s race is in your hands, and what better hands could it be in than Athens County Democrats? Ted has always been a working people’s person. We’ve lived a middle-class lifestyle,” she said. “And one of the reasons I think Ted doesn’t have all the money Portman does is he didn’t hang out on K Street with all those lobbyists. Portman has those people but Ted has you all.”
She was introduced by John Haseley, Ted Strickland’s former chief of staff as governor, and current Athens County Democratic Party chair.
“Rob Portman talked about today how he trusts Donald Trump with nuclear weapons,” Haseley said. “What an idiot. It’s really unbelievable to watch Rob Portman twist himself into a pretzel trying to pretend he’s a moderate when he’s not. His constituents are not in this room. His constituents are on K Street and Wall Street. He’s not for us; he’s for them.”
This is the dichotomy they set up in the race: Strickland is the good old boy with Appalachian roots who knows and cares about the people of southeast Ohio; Portman is the puppet of special interests at the corner of Wall Street and K.
It’s a strong narrative, and it would probably resonate if it were being heard at large, or at least on equal level with the cacophony of mendacity from the other side. But, alas, this is America, where political bribery is legalized and elections are bought and sold.
Cleveland.com’s Jeremy Pelzer had a piece yesterday about how the Portman camp is eyeing gains in SE Ohio by taking a page out of the Kasich playbook and saturating the market with negative TV ads designed to define Strickland.
Portman’s campaign and outside groups backing him have spent millions on ads claiming Strickland has “sold out” his native region on key issues such as coal and gun control. Strickland, meanwhile, is counting on voters in the area to remember him and his political accomplishments.
Southeast Ohio, a sparsely populated, economically stagnant area of Appalachian foothills stretching roughly from Portsmouth to Youngstown, is not likely to decide the election unless it’s really close.
But Portman’s campaign sees an opportunity to win votes in a historically Democratic area that is already gradually shifting toward the Republicans.
Negative campaigning is sadly effective when it has enough time to seep in, and the moneyed interests have poured so much money into this race so early, the Koch Brothers are now pinching their wallets on a $2.1 million ad buy.
Meanwhile, Democratic groups have also postponed more spending in the race on behalf of Strickland.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee scrapped nine days worth of an independent ad buy in Ohio set to begin Sept. 13, according to Democratic and campaign sources.
The DSCC instead used the money to help pay for a coordinated ad campaign with Strickland’s campaign. That campaign, running now through Sept. 6, seeks to tie Republican incumbent Rob Portman with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, sources said.
Strickland campaign spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement that “The DSCC is spending the same amount of money they were slated to spend, it’s just being used to help fund our existing ad instead of through an independent expenditure.”
The delay, however, gives the DSCC additional time to evaluate how Strickland’s campaign is faring before launching its own – and likely more substantial – independent ad buy.
So what’s really going on here? Both sides are taking the temperature of the room as they decide on a strategy for the next two-month blitz toward Election Day.
As I’ve noted in this space, majority leadership of the U.S. Senate may well hinge on this one race.
Democrats are looking at winning three or four seats in the U.S. Senate this cycle, and whether it’s three or four makes all the difference. It’s the ballgame. Three Democratic wins and the Republicans maintain the majority; four and the Democrats snag it.
Is it possible that this critical race, and control over the U.S. Senate, will really come down to southeast Ohio if it’s a close race?
Is it possible that Rob Portman, who is entirely unknown in the foothills of Appalachia – far from being hurt by the nominee – could ride Donald Trump’s coattails in the region?
Would the good people of southeast Ohio really vote against one of their own and in favor of a billionaire businessman from New York City, on behalf of an unknown absentee incumbent? The mind, she boggles. It’s time for some phone calls to the political wizards, and strong drink. Where’d I put my good ‘shine?
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.