Strickland: Swimming Against The Tide? Or Will The Tide Turn?
There are those who are ready to stick a fork in the U.S. Senate campaign of former Ohio governor Ted Strickland and declare him done.
Strickland, of course, is not among them.
But he is, with a little more than nine weeks to go, clearly behind the in polls. Real Clear Politics, a website that tracks polling in state races and nationwide, averaged out the last seven polls of Ohio voters and gave Portman an edge of 7.5 percentage points – significant, although not insurmountable.
Strickland is being outspent by many millions by the campaign of the Republican incumbent, Rob Portman, and his allies who are making independent expenditures on ads attacking Strickland.
Meanwhile, Strickland allies like the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee postponed ad buys for Strickland and Harry Reid's Democratic Majority Fund PAC, which canceled $1.7 million in pro-Strickland advertising – although both groups say they are likely to jump back in the race later.
It was a signal to many that the national Democratic leadership – which is desperate to win a Senate majority in November – has thrown up its hands and moved on to states where their Democratic candidates have a better chance of winning.
All of this led Sabato's Crystal Ball, a closely-watched weekly political newsletter published by Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, to move the Ohio Senate race from a "toss-up" to "leans Republican."
This was in an edition of the Crystal Ball where Sabato, along with staff members Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, wrote a detailed piece with this headline: "As we head into Labor Day, Democrats are slight favorites to win a slim Senate majority."
Sabato, in an interview with WVXU, called Strickland "the weak link" in the Democrats' plans to win back control of the Senate.
"Right now, Portman is doing the best job of any endangered Republican in the country,'' Sabato said. "The Portman campaign was really prepared for a fight – maybe more prepared than anybody else in the country."
Friday, Portman's campaign e-mailed a message to supporters bragging about the fact that, since May of 2015, the campaign has made 3.5 million voter contacts.
Strickland's campaign is dismissing the naysayers who believe the Democrat's campaign is in free-fall.
"There's still a lot of race left to run and there's no one who knows Ohio better or who is a stronger grassroots campaigner than Ted Strickland," said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Strickland campaign.
"We just recently launched our paid media campaign; the national environment is rapidly deteriorating around Portman; he's facing a daily firestorm about his continued support for Trump,'' Bergstein said.
Portman, Bergstein said, has "a small, weak field operation" that can't compete with the Ohio Democratic Party's coordinated field campaign which has a large staff and many volunteers working to elect the entire Democratic ticket.
Many say Strickland could need considerable help from Hillary Clinton to drag him across the finish line.
Right now, Clinton leads Donald Trump in Ohio by four to six percentage points – not a massive lead, but Ohio is a state that rarely elects anyone in a landslide.
"If Clinton's numbers start going up after the debates, then maybe Strickland's do too,'' Sabato said. "But it still comes down to the ground game. Reaching voters one-on-one. And Portman is really good at it."
Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, believes Strickland's problems are exaggerated.
"It's not even Labor Day yet,'' Burke told WVXU on Thursday. "A whole lot of things can happen between now and then. The difference in the polls between them is less than 10 percent."
The major thing that could happen, Burke said, is that Clinton would end up kicking Trump's posterior in Ohio, although he didn't use the word "posterior."
"The more Hillary is able to move up in the polls, the better it is going to be for Ted," Burke said. "And we have a tremendous ground game here; a ground game that is not only going to help Hillary Clinton and Ted Strickland, but Democrats up and down the ticket."
Strickland is fighting back.
His campaign recently began airing an ad that responds to a favorite GOP charge against the former governor – that, while in office, he spent the state's $1 billion rainy day fund down to 89 cents. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce PAC ad that's "less than you can find in your couch."
In his ad, Strickland says he did it in hard economic times in order to balance the state budget.
"I was governor during the great national recession and we all know it was raining pretty hard,'' Strickland said in the ad. "So I used the rainy day fund because I wouldn't cut education or local police or fire. And we balanced the budget every year.
"Attacks ads are easy,'' Strickland said. "Leading in a crisis is hard."
Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said Strickland's argument is a tough one to get across in a short TV ad.
"That rainy day figure is powerful – only 89 cents left,'' Mariani said. "That's really close to being a silver bullet. And the Republicans will keep saying it over and over again."
Mariani does not put much stock in the idea that Clinton can save Strickland by trouncing Trump in Ohio.
"We're looking at a close race in Ohio,'' Mariani said. "And, right now, Portman is running well ahead of Trump here."
Yes, it's been looking pretty grim for Strickland lately.
But to declare a race that is still in the single digits over 65 days before the election is jumping the gun a bit – although it is clear that Strickland and the Democrats will need to kick it into high gear.
In politics, 65 days is an eternity.