Sittenfeld talks a lot about Portman, but Strickland's his immediate problem

Mar 22, 2015

There must be a lot of Democratic Party leaders around Ohio scratching their heads lately.

Why, they must be asking themselves, is P.G. Sittenfeld, the 30-year-old Cincinnati councilman who announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate some time ago, still in the race?

It’s been almost two weeks now since the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee threw its support behind former governor Ted Strickland for the 2016 U.S. Senate nomination.

So has the state’s ranking Democratic elected official, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. So have a raft of other elected officials – Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, several Democratic U.S. House members from Ohio.

Even the Ohio College Democrats – a group one might think would find Sittenfeld more appealing than the 73-year-old Strickland – have endorsed the former governor in the race to take on Republican incumbent Rob Portman.  

So why won’t be budge? Why won’t he get out of the way, they wonder?

Because he doesn’t feel the need.

“I am running to win,’’ Sittenfeld told WVXU this week. “I look forward to the opportunity of representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate.”

You can hear interviews with Ted Strickland and P.G. Sittenfeld at 1 p.m. Wednesday on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition.

If you talk to Sittenfeld for any length of time, he is going to say this, repeatedly: “This is not about me.”

He said it several times in the interview with WVXU; he says it wherever he goes.

“If I don’t end up in the U.S. Senate, I’m going to be OK,’’ said Sittenfeld in his WVXU interview.

The race, he says, is not about him but about young people who are “struggling with mountains of debt” when they leave college, working families struggling to get by, seniors who are worry about being able to retire with dignity and enough money to meet their needs.

Sittenfeld is out raising money and traveling the state; he intends to campaign in all 88 counties.

The Ohio Democratic Party is officially neutral in this race. But a poll paid for by the party, conducted by Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm, just happened to find its way into the public domain.

The poll showed Strickland and the Republican incumbent in a dead heat at 45 percent each. Portman led Sittenfeld by 19 percentage points – 50 percent to 31 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

What the poll did not do – at least not publicly – was put Strickland and Sittenfeld head-to-head among Ohio Democratic voters.

Kyle Kondik is managing editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly publication of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, headed by political analyst Larry Sabato.

Kondik, who comes from a background in Ohio politics, believes Strickland clearly is the favorite to win a Democratic U.S. Senate primary. He wrote a detailed column in last week’s Crystal Ball laying out what Hillary Clinton, if she is the Democratic presidential nominee, and Strickland would have to do to win Ohio in 2016.

And he also wrote a column this week about what he called the “Sittenfeld insurgency.”

Kondik, speaking to WVXU Friday, said that, so far, Sittenfeld has said next to nothing yet about Strickland, the man he would have to defeat if he is to face Portman next fall. And it is true – Sittenfeld does not attack Strickland.

“To be crystal clear, I am running against Rob Portman,’’ Sittenfeld told WVXU. “That is who I have policy differences with…..the real contrast is between me and Rob Portman.”

Kondik said it is still early in the campaign but he’s not sure how long Sittenfeld can ignore Strickland and focus his attacks on Portman.

“He seems to want to run a general election campaign now, but he can’t,’’ Kondik said. “He’s behind in the polls.

Sittenfeld, Kondik said, “is the underdog; and the underdog has to tear down Ted Strickland. That goes without saying.”

“He has to run aggressively against Strickland’s record and convince Democratic primary voters that he is the liberal candidate,’’ Kondik said.

And, if runs hard against Strickland and loses, does he damage his future with the Ohio Democratic Party as a statewide candidate? Maybe, in some quarters. But there will be statewide elections again in 2018; and the Democratic Party is going to need a strong bench of new, young candidates to run for state office. Sittenfeld could well be among them.

As Kondik points out in his column, there is some “historic inspiration” in his race against the better-known Strickland.

It goes all the way back to 1968, when Cincinnati’s John J. Gilligan took on Sen. Frank Lausche in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary. Lausche – a very conservative Democrat, had been mayor of Cleveland, governor of Ohio and had been in the Senate since 1956. He was a giant in Ohio politics.

But Gilligan scored an upset victory over Lausche, although he ended up losing the general election to Republican Bill Saxbe. Two years later, Gilligan was elected governor.

There are distinct differences between the P.G. Sittenfeld of 2015 and the John J. Gilligan of 1968. Sittenfeld is 30 years old and in his second term as a council member. Gilligan, in 1968, had spent 10 years on Cincinnati City Council and one term in the U.S. House.

But, at the time, it was seen as a David-versus-Goliath thing.

Could Sittenfeld repeat that kind of upset?

It’s hard to say. As Kondik says, “it’s fair to say that Sittenfeld would need a lot of luck to even make the primary a contest, let alone win.”

And it won’t be a contest at all if he doesn’t start aiming some campaign barbs at Strickland.

It’s like the NCAA basketball tournament. You have to get in the championship game before you can win it all.

Separate, extended interviews with both Strickland and Sittenfeld will air back-to-back at 1 p.m. Wednesday on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition.