While there are a few examples of statewide primaries in Ohio that helped sharpen the nominee and build momentum for the fall, a possible race between Ed FitzGerald and Todd Portune for the Democratic nomination for governor this year isn’t looking like one of them.
Last year at this time, FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, faced the possibility of primary opposition from Betty Sutton, Tim Ryan or Richard Cordray. None of the challenges materialized, giving FitzGerald a clear shot at the May 6 primary, his first statewide race.
But in recent weeks, the FitzGerald campaign has stalled. Last month, the campaign announced that his choice for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Eric Kearney, was off the ticket after weeks of publicity about Kearney’s unpaid taxes, related to his publishing business.
FitzGerald has not named a new running mate. Meanwhile, Portune, a Hamilton County commissioner, announced that he will explore the possibility of filing next month. Portune is already causing trouble for FitzGerald, who should be developing themes to use against Republican Gov. John Kasich in November.
This week, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an email from Portune to supporters. In the email, which the newspaper said was not obtained from Portune himself, the Hamilton County commissioner hammered FitzGerald for being aloof, inexperienced and prone to making campaign mistakes.
The core of Portune’s argument is damaging because it makes such a sharp contrast between his experience and FitzGerald’s. Portune, first elected commissioner in 2000, is in his fourth term, is a proven vote-getter in Southwest Ohio, a Republican stronghold.
FitzGerald, a former mayor of Lakewood, is in his first term as Cuyahoga County executive. He is little known outside Northeast Ohio, dominated by Democrats, and has had trouble connecting with African-American voters.
Portune may decide not to file on Feb. 5. But at the least, he will have helped Kasich’s team identify FitzGerald’s weak points, which it can now attribute to another Democrat. If Kasich needs to, he could use his ample campaign treasury to define FitzGerald before FitzGerald can define himself.
If Portune decides to run, bucking the Ohio Democratic Party, he won’t be able to win the primary. But if the recent email is an indication, Portune is ready to make FitzGerald’s life on the campaign trail miserable, distracting him and forcing him to spend money he needs for the fall.
At this point, Kasich’s main weakness is the economy, his proclaimed “Ohio miracle” an increasingly untenable position. In November, Ohio led the nation in job losses, by both the number and percentage of jobs lost. The state’s unemployment rate is above the national average.
Still, tea partyers are looking for a candidate to challenge Kasich in the primary after Ted Stevenot, former president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, bowed out of the race. The tea partyers are outraged over Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a powerful issue among conservative voters in the party’s base.
Kasich could also face complications in the general election from Charles Earl, a former state representative running for governor as a Libertarian. This week, the Libertarians and other minor parties caught a break when a federal judge blocked implementation of a new law on minor parties that was rammed through the Republican-controlled legislature.
The law, challenged by the Libertarian and Green parties, would make it much more difficult for minor parties to gain access to the ballot this year. Why were Republicans worried? Because Kasich won in 2010 by just slightly more than 2 percentage points.
Could FitzGerald get close enough that Earl could cost Kasich the race? It’s a long shot. The Democrats have more reason to worry that a blowout at the top will drag down the rest of their ticket.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.