Commentary: Pity Ohio's (Not So) Poor Down-ticket Candidates

Sep 12, 2018

It’s not often that people feel sincerely sorry for politicians, but in Ohio, you might be able to work up a bit of sympathy for the down-ticket candidates for state offices this year.

Attorney General. Secretary of State. State Auditor. State Treasurer.

All significant offices, with important things to do other than sit around all day counting the change in your desk drawer and firing paper clips across your office with a rubber band.

But when it comes time to elect people to these offices, it is nigh upon impossible to break through the noise of the governor's race.

It is like trying to hold a conversation while standing next to an active airport runway.

You are unlikely to be heard.

via GIPHY

It's not like there is not an opportunity for advancement for the ambitious Democratic or Republican candidates this year. Every one of those four offices is wide open.

The present attorney general, Mike DeWine, is the Republican candidate for governor. Dave Yost, the current Republican state auditor, is running for attorney general. The current Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, is DeWine's running mate for lieutenant governor. And the current Republican state treasurer, Josh Mandel, dropped out of the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown earlier this year and is out of the picture. (Jim Renacci stepped up to replace him.)

Got all that? Good.

Before it is all over on Nov. 6, DeWine and Cordray – along with their independent expenditure allies and Super PAC friends – will have spent a whopping $29 million between them, according to Borrell Associates, a company that tracks ad spending.

It is not exactly that the down-ticket candidates are poor; most have raised a substantial amount of money, but nothing even close to what will be spent on the governor's race.

Here's the line-up, and where they stand in fundraising:

Attorney General: Dave Yost, the current Republican state auditor and former Delaware County prosecutor is taking on Democrat Steve Dettelbach, a first-time statewide candidate from Cleveland who is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

They are about even in fundraising: Dettelbach had $3.4 million in the bank by the end of August, while Yost had $3 million.

State Auditor: Former Democratic congressman Zack Space is running against State Rep. Keith Faber of Mercer County, a former Ohio Senate president.

Faber has $1 million in the bank, while Space has $844,528.

Secretary of State: Democratic State Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Kent is running against State Sen. Frank LaRose of Hudson. They are fairly evenly matched in terms of campaign funds: $1.52 million in the bank for Clyde and $1.36 million for LaRose.

State Treasurer: Cincinnati's Rob Richardson, the former chair of the board of trustees at the University of Cincinnati and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2017, has $1.08 million in the bank. His Republican opponent, State Rep. Robert Sprague of Findlay, has $363,318 on hand.

Democrats are looking at this as their best chance in breaking the GOP stranglehold on statewide elected offices – including governor – that began in 2010 when Republican John Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland for governor.

Matt Wahlert, a Republican Party activist from North College Hill, said it is only natural that a competitive race at the top for governor is going to draw attention away from the down-ticket candidates.

"I know the polls show that Cordray and DeWine is a dead heat now, but people aren’t really paying attention yet,'' Wahlert said. "When they do, I think you are going to see a lot of cross-over votes for DeWine. And when that happens, that will just help the other candidates down the line."

Last week, Innovation Ohio, a liberal think tank based in Columbus, released a statewide poll of 822 likely voters. It has DeWine and Cordray in a flat-footed tie – 43 percent points each.

In the down-ticket races, the Republicans held small leads – Yost four points over Dettelbach; Faber by four points over Space; LaRose with a two-point lead over Clyde; and Sprague by three points over Richardson.

Not significant leads at this stage of the game, with slightly less than two months to go.

The down-ticket candidates have time to try to break through the noise at the top of the ticket, but it's not easy.

Connie Pillich, the co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, was the Democratic candidate for state treasurer in 2014. She lost, but she had 43 percent of the vote – more than any other Democratic statewide candidate that year.

It was a horrible year for Democrats – at the top of the ticket, they had Ed FitzGerald, then the Cuyahoga County Executive who was beset by one scandal after another and turned out to be one of the worst statewide candidates in the 214-year history of Ohio.

FitzGerald, the supposed "leader" of the Democratic ticket, ended up with 33 percent of the vote. The incumbent Republican, Kasich, didn't have to break a sweat to win a second term.

"That was a particularly difficult year for Democrats,'' Pillich said. "But, even so, it's always hard to break through as a down-ticket candidate when the gubernatorial or Senate candidates are getting all the attention."

Pillich has been particularly impressed by the fundraising ability of Clyde, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state.

And the fact that Clyde is the only woman on either party's slate of statewide candidates – except for Betty Sutton, Cordray's running mate – "might just propel her over the top."

"Women win just as much as men do,'' Pillich said. "But we may see a substantial bump in gender voting this year."

Candidates, whatever their gender, have only two jobs to do to be successful, Pillich said.

"Talk to the voters and raise money. Lots and lots of money."

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more of Howard Wilkinson's "Politically Speaking" here.