After a long, bitter and expensive presidential election year, everybody in Ohio took a deep breath, relaxed, then started thinking about running for statewide office in 2014.
OK, not everybody. But, certainly, a lot of Democrats, who were swamped by Republicans in 2010. The GOP won every statewide executive office, setting the party’s lineup for 2014.
The most important question now is who will run for governor against John Kasich.
Democrats also need to fill the rest of the ticket, building a farm system of candidates with statewide name recognition.
This week, reports confirmed that Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, is starting to build a political organization to run for governor. He isn’t interested in running for any other statewide office.
If FitzGerald is challenged in a primary, it would probably be by Betty Sutton. The Copley Township Democrat wanted to return to the U.S. House, but she lost an unusual race last year against freshman Rep. Jim Renacci, a Wadsworth Republican. The two were put in the same congressional district.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, of Niles, and former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, renominated to run the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are also possibilities to challenge FitzGerald, but they don’t seem as interested as Sutton.
The chances that a contested Democratic primary would turn out well are slim. The best-case scenario would go like this: FitzGerald and Sutton have a vigorous, but respectful, primary, carefully using scarce financial resources to build name recognition (neither has run statewide before). In the process, they would build a case for defeating Kasich, while not tearing each other to pieces.
Democrats would be smarter to avoid a primary, concentrating their effort and money on FitzGerald, who has experience in executive offices (he is a former Lakewood mayor) and can raise donations from the state’s largest bastion of Democratic voters, Cuyahoga County. Sutton’s experience is in the legislative branch, at the federal, state and local levels.
Giving FitzGerald a clear shot at the nomination would not only save money, but avoid the risk of the campaign turning nasty, providing Republicans with criticisms they could quickly use to attack the primary winner in the general election.
There are a few examples of Ohio primaries that helped sharpen the eventual nominee, among them the 2008 presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton beat Obama in Ohio in 2008, but the experience helped Obama to win the state in the general election. What’s important to remember is that both Obama and Clinton were prodigious fundraisers, which the Ohio Democratic Party isn’t.
What seems more likely is the kind of outcome seen in the 2010 Democratic U.S. Senate primary between Lee Fisher, then lieutenant governor, and Jennifer Brunner, then Ohio secretary of state. The race drained financial resources, while failing to generate much excitement, the two candidate very close on the issues.
Fisher’s fundraising provided the advantage in the primary, but he lost to Republican Rob Portman in the general election after taking a pounding over job losses. Before his U.S. Senate campaign, Fisher was also state development director.
A worse outcome took place in the 1994 U.S. Senate primary, when Mary Boyle, then a Cuyahoga County commissioner, challenged Joel Hyatt, inventor of Hyatt Legal Services and son-in-law of the incumbent, Howard Metzenbaum, who decided not to run again.
Boyle lost, but her primary took the sheen off Hyatt’s well-funded campaign, her long political experience contrasting with Hyatt, who had never run for public office before.
That paved the way for Mike DeWine to win in the general election. The Republican, then lieutenant governor, survived a four-way primary after his main challenger, Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes of Health, failed to catch fire. DeWine avoided serious damage in the GOP primary, and his steady campaigning paid off in the long general-election race.
Ohio Democrats, shut out of power, cannot afford to gamble that a primary anywhere on the statewide ticket, let alone in the governor’s race, would leave their nominee in an advantageous position for the fall campaign season.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.