P.G. Sittenfeld Still Pounding His Head Against The Strickland Brick Wall
It must be somewhat frustrating to be P.G. Sittenfeld these days.
The 30-year-old second-term Cincinnati council member is a candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Rob Portman.
When he jumped in, he was hailed by many as a fresh new face, representing a new generation of young Ohio Democrats determined to bring the party back from the dead.
He got into the race before the 74-year-old former governor, Ted Strickland, who lost his 2010 re-election campaign by a mere two percentage points to Republican John Kasich, now a candidate for president.
Ever since, Sittenfeld has been trying to draw attention to his campaign, pointing out repeatedly that there are important issues facing the state and the nation that he has a position on and that Strickland refuses to discuss.
And hardly anyone seems to be listening.
A Quinnipiac University Poll that came out last Tuesday showed Strickland with a narrow three percentage point lead over Portman. In a head-to-head match-up with Sittenfeld, Portman led by a whopping 21 percentage points.
Worse yet, it showed that 88 percent of the Ohio voters polled say they don’t know enough about Sittenfeld to say whether they have a favorable or an unfavorable opinion of him.
That’s about nine of every 10 voters. And nearly all the ones who do know who P.G. Sittenfeld is probably live inside the city of Cincinnati, or within spitting distance of the city limits.
Not really a good position to be in in a statewide campaign. The city of Cincinnati in and of itself can’t elect a U.S. Senator. It takes a whole state to do that.
All of this makes it incredibly hard for Sittenfeld to (a) raise money and (b) draw attention to himself. And you must be able to do the former before you can achieve the latter.
This week, we had a case in point:
Last Monday, Strickland had a lunch forum with Cincinnati Democrats at the law office of Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke. Burke often allows Democratic candidates to use his office space; Sittenfeld has done it too.
Someone at this luncheon asked Strickland where he stands on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project.
Burke told WVXU that there was at least one Sittenfeld campaign aide in the room and said he told Strickland that.
Sittenfeld, citing “multiple sources who attended the meeting,” said this was Strickland’s response:
“The Keystone Pipeline doesn’t involve Ohio. So I’m staying out of it. It’s too divisive.”
The 1,179 mile pipeline would hook up with the existing pipelines in the country and carry oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The argument over the pipeline has divided Democrats in Congress.
Burke confirmed to WVXU that was, in effect, what Strickland said. And the Strickland campaign did not deny it.
So Thursday, morning, Sittenfeld called a press conference and issued a statement blasting Strickland for not taking a position on an important issue. The pipeline, Sittenfeld said, “would carry some of the dirtiest oil in the world” and “would exacerbate climate change, and that most certainly would impact Ohio and Ohioans.”
“Since when did it become acceptable for Senate candidates to avoid dealing with issues because they are controversial and ‘divisive,’” Sittenfeld asked. “Isn’t that the kind of cover-your-behind politics that voters say they are sick of? Leaders lead – they don’t bob, weave, evade and equivocate.”
The campaign of Portman, who supports the Keystone XL pipeline, jumped on the bus with Sittenfeld and started banging away at Strickland for his no-comment comment on the pipeline.
Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager, said that “given his record as governor when Ohio lost over 350,000 jobs, it is clear that Gov. Strickland not only lacks the ability to lead, but he also lacks the ability to even answer yes or no questions.”
Sittenfeld got some “free media” coverage around the state, but his outrage over Strickland’s remark didn’t exactly start a wildfire in Ohio politics.
It barely got a shrug of the shoulders from the Strickland campaign.
Here, in its entirely, is the response of Dennis Willard, spokesman for the Strickland campaign:
"The campaign is declining to respond to PG."
OK. Clear enough.
And why should they respond, you might ask?
Responding to criticism from a candidate totally unknown to about 90 percent of the electorate just gives him more recognition, which is the last thing the Strickland campaign wants to do.
On Thursday, Sittenfeld also repeated his call for a series of six debates around the state so the two of them can “stand toe-to-toe and let the voters compare us side by side.”
Well, no response from Strickland on that.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for one debate, much less six.
The polls are only part of Sittenfeld’s problem. The Cincinnati council member has the entire Democratic Party lined up against him, both in Columbus and Washington. The Ohio Democratic Party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the state’s ranking Democratic elected official, Sen. Sherrod Brown; former president Bill Clinton and scores of Democratic elected officials around the state all have endorsed Strickland.
Dale Butland, the veteran Democratic political operative who is spokesman for Sittenfeld’s campaign, said the fact that a story about his swipe at Strickland landed in the Columbus Dispatch (a story that's also about Portman’s campaign banging on Strickland over the pipeline), is the kind of “earned media” that will help Sittenfeld with his name recognition problem.
“Earned media,” for the uninitiated, is what people in politics call news coverage of their statements and events.
“I certainly think that having people in Columbus see that P.G. has a position on this issue and Ted Strickland does not,’’ Butland said " should make an impression.”
Strickland, Butland said, “just looks weak and wobbly.”
“Will that show up in the polls tomorrow?,” Butland said. “No, it won’t. But the cumulative effect of this kind of stuff will have an impact.”
If there is enough money to get out the message that is. If there is enough “earned media” to get the message out.
Will it be enough to get Sittenfeld on a level playing field with the former governor, who, according to the Quinnipiac poll, has 23 percent of Ohio voters saying they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
That would have to take a whole lot of “earned media.”
Even though the primary election is over six months away, there are many in Ohio politics scratching their heads over why Sittenfeld battles on? Why alienate the party establishment? At the age of 30, there are going to be plenty of opportunities to run for statewide office in the future.
Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, called the fact that Sittenfeld is still in the race “sort of a puzzle.”
“I was one of those who thought he would have withdrawn months ago,’’ Mariani said. “And, since then, the polls haven’t moved a bit.”
But, he said, “it could be that he is seeing some evidence of weakness on the part of Strickland and the strength of Portman.”
The polls back that up, to a certain extent.
First of all, Strickland’s lead appears to be shrinking.
Last week’s Quinnipiac poll had Strickland with a three percentage point lead – with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. In April, Strickland had a nine percentage point lead. In June, it was down to six.
The trend for Strickland is down, down, down.
“There are some people in the party really angry that P.G. is running,’’ Mariani said. “But, you have to ask yourself – if Strickland had not gotten in the race, a 30-year-old running for the U.S. Senate would have been a national sensation; he would have ended up on all the Sunday talk shows.”
But it is a steep hill Sittenfeld has to climb to become a legitimate threat to Strickland.
“In this environment, it’s hard for any candidate not running TV ads to break through,’’ Mariani said.
And that is going to take money. A whole lot of money. And one thing that helps shake loose money is “earned media.”
And that is hard to get when nobody knows who you are. Frustration to the nth degree.