Julie Carr Smyth

COLUMBUS: Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has been targeted by one of the nation’s heaviest early barrages of outside spending as he seeks to unseat U.S. Sen. Rob Portman next year, and groups that support the Democrat’s victory are also taking aim at Portman in some big-money ad buys.

The influx of so-called dark money into the 2016 race comes in a closely divided battleground state that Democrats view as one of their best chances nationally at a pick-up. Some early polling showed Strickland slightly ahead or statistically tied with Portman.

An analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that independent groups had spent about $2.3 million either against Strickland or for Portman as of Nov. 16, making him a top subject of attack ads nationally.

Democrats add another $3.9 million in announced outside spending to what’s planned against Strickland, while Portman’s campaign estimates $1.3 million has been spent against him.

It’s all part of what the center calculated on Sept. 21 as a five-fold increase over 2014 in very early dark money spending. That does not count hundreds of thousands of dollars the Strickland and Portman campaigns plan to spend on advertising in the race.

The contest also includes Democratic Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who is challenging Strickland in the Democratic primary.

Among groups lining up against Strickland are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which FEC filings show has spent at least $1.4 million airing an ad titled “Bruce’s Story” on TV and online. AFP is one of the biggest outside groups backed by billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch.

The ad features a man who says he is a former employee of DHL as he criticizes Strickland’s economic performance as governor, a job he held during a period when DHL left the state.

Job losses highlighted

The Chamber’s ads have also highlighted job losses under Strickland’s watch, which coincided with a national recession.

Jenny Donohue, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said some of Portman’s policy stances in Washington have delivered for groups backing the attack ads, so she is not surprised they are working to “protect their investment.”

“But no amount of money can rewrite history to buy Senator Portman a record that works for Ohio,” she said. “Ted Strickland has earned the support of Ohioans across the state by working to lower their college costs, standing up for their retirement, and fighting for fair trade that grows jobs in Ohio.”

Portman campaign spokesman Corry Bliss countered: “We didn’t hear Ted Strickland complain when his out of state liberal allies spent over $1 million attacking Rob, but there’s not enough money in the world to make people forget Ted Strickland’s awful record as governor when Ohio lost over 350,000 jobs and ranked 48th in job creation.”

The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, meanwhile, have led the outside spending charge against Portman. Republicans estimate they’ve spent about $1.2 million combined on mostly digital ads taking issue with Portman on environmental issues, including his opposition to the Obama administration’s new carbon emission rules.