COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some Ohio Democrats are exhibiting buyer’s remorse as the shine rapidly fades from Ted Strickland’s once-promising campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
The 75-year-old former governor had high name recognition and strong support from labor, earning him the backing of Democratic party leaders in his primary against 31-year-old Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. Months later, Portman, 60, is comfortably ahead in opinion polls, and national Democrats are pulling millions of dollars in planned pro-Strickland ad spending out of the state.
Strickland’s cash-strapped campaign has been forced to cancel ads in several cities, focusing remaining resources in the critical Cleveland and Columbus markets.
“Stevie Wonder could have seen this coming,” said former Democratic congressman Dennis Eckart, who was critical of the state party taking sides in the Senate primary.
“There was so much money headed into Ohio, they were just going to re-run Ted’s failed re-election campaign against him. They didn’t even have to start from scratch; they just had to remind people,” Eckart said.
Democrats’ diminishing hopes and investment in Ohio come as their prospects may be dimming nationally of retaking the Senate, which would require picking up five seats, or four if they keep the White House, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes.
The party also is pulling back in Florida, where incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio looks strong. But Democrats are moving resources to North Carolina and Missouri, where it’s much cheaper to advertise and where Republican concerns are growing about lackluster campaigning by the GOP incumbents, Richard Burr and Roy Blunt.
Many Democrats across Ohio are cringing as Strickland’s prospects fade, wondering whether members of the Ohio Democratic Party’s old guard who backed a different candidate might have been right. A group from the 1980s era of popular former Gov. Richard Celeste, including Celeste himself, endorsed Sittenfeld.
Sittenfeld ran a primary that attacked Strickland on guns, a message that may yet be hurting the former governor with his Democratic base. And Sittenfeld badly lost the primary, vindicating Strickland’s champions within the party and raising the question of what chance he would have had against Portman anyway.
But Strickland detractors accurately predicted what came next: Republicans revisited the 2010 campaign Strickland lost to Republican John Kasich — the recessionary job losses, the tax increases and the draining of the rainy-day fund. Some $43 million in ads by outside groups — led by the billionaire Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Action Fund — resurrect his governorship in grainy spots calling him a “job killer” who “made our lives harder.”
“Nothing that I and other people said took a genius to figure out,” said Gerald Austin, a Cleveland-area Democratic strategist who supported Sittenfeld. “The campaign would be about Ted Strickland being governor. And they basically had no money or very little money to fight back.”
Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper insists Strickland was and remains the party’s strongest weapon against Portman.
“Ohio TV viewers are seeing what a Citizens United-era campaign looks like,” Pepper said. “No Democrat besides LeBron James or John Glenn — except for Ted Strickland — would be within 10 points of Rob Portman after $40 million in attack ads.”
Besides Strickland’s sluggish fundraising — $6.6 million raised, compared to Portman’s $14 million — he’s made a couple of verbal gaffes, lost several key endorsements and suffered from a perception that he lacks Portman’s pace and passion.
Eckart conceded, too, that Portman’s campaign is “one of the best campaigns in the country right now,” having succeeded in portraying Portman as “more human than Mother Teresa” for his work against opiate addiction.
Austin believes Strickland’s lagging position may hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the battleground state, as those opting to support Portman decide whether to split their tickets or stick with Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Ticket-splitting has been increasingly rare in recent election cycles, however, and Strickland’s campaign says Democrats’ statewide coordinated campaign is better positioned than a GOP ground game suffering from divisions over Trump. Polls had Strickland down 17 points at this point in 2010, and he lost to Kasich by just 2 percentage points.
“There’s still a lot of race left to run,” said campaign spokesman David Bergstein. “No one knows Ohio better or is a stronger grassroots campaigner than Ted Strickland.”
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.