There are many odd things about this battle within the ranks of Ohio Democrats over the U.S. Senate seat, with 30-year-old P.G. Sittenfeld, the council member from Cincinnati, taking on the 74-year-old former governor and congressman, Ted Strickland.
First, there is the fact that Sittenfeld, despite having the entire Ohio Democratic Party structure lined up against him, and the national party too, shows absolutely no sign of dropping out of the race against Strickland who has the lead not only in name recognition but in money raised.
But that’s not the strangest thing.
In recent weeks, old party leaders like former state chairman Jim Ruvolo and long-time Democratic political operative Jerry Austin – who were powers in the Ohio Democratic Party before Sittenfeld was born – are lined up with the Cincinnati city council member.
At the same time, the Ohio Democratic Party, led by 44-year-old David Pepper, a former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner, came out of a disastrous 2014 statewide election vowing to pump new blood into the party, is backing the 74-year-old Strickland, who is of Ruvolo and Austin’s generation.
And whoever comes out of this Democratic primary – and the polls and the smart money says it will be Strickland – will have to take on incumbent Republican Rob Portman, who has far more campaign money that both Democrats combined.
Yes, the whole Sittenfeld-Strickland thing is a bit weird.
It came out into the open a few weeks ago when Pepper gave an interview to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial board, where Pepper was quoted as saying that the campaign of Sittenfeld, who was first elected to council in 2011, is a “case study of moving too quickly” and that the young council member has “a missed opportunity to make a difference in a community that needs it.”
Pepper’s comments to the Enquirer set Ruvolo off; the Toledo area Democrat hadn’t been heard from much in recent years, but he immediately fired off a memo to Ohio political reporters; and followed it up with a conference call.
“I was appalled,” Ruvolo said of Pepper’s remarks. “I’m concerned about the direction of my and our continuing inability to get back on a winning track.”
Ruvolo made it clear that he did not approve of the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee voting to give a very early endorsement to Strickland over Sittenfeld earlier this year. And he was not at all happy that Pepper did not allow Sittenfeld to speak to the Ohio Democratic Party’s State Dinner in Columbus in May, while Strickland, as the endorsed candidate, did.
Pepper feels a little like he is between a rock and a hard place.
“I have a mentee of mine running against a mentor of mine,’’ Pepper told WVXU.
“P.G. has every right to run,’’ Pepper said. “Obviously the party has endorsed Ted. I have never told (Sittenfeld) not to run.”
Pepper said he has given Sittenfeld’s campaign access to the state party’s data base of voters, just as he has given Strickland such access.
“There have been party chairs in the past that have cut off candidates who weren’t endorsed from having access to that,” Pepper said.
As far as the state dinner is concerned, Pepper said “I’ve been a state candidate twice and I’ve never been invited to speak at the state dinner.”
What he did say to the Enquirer, Pepper said, is that Sittenfeld “is still a council member and he should be focused on crime and everything else while he is running for something.”
Sometimes, it almost seems as if the Sittenfeld campaign is spending more time running against the Ohio Democratic Party than against Strickland.
Dale Butland, a long-time veteran of Ohio politics and Sittenfeld’s campaign spokesman, said the campaign’s only beef with Strickland is that he is “playing rope-a-dope” – in other words, he’s acting like a boxer just taking body blows and hope that his opponent wears himself out and that he can throw a knock-out punch.
“We’re not in this to attack Ted Strickland,’’ Butland said. “He is a good and decent man. But he is not the best person to put against a candidate like Rob Portman.”
Sittenfeld is a candidate offering “new ideas, and I think people are looking for that.”
If you are Sittenfeld and you have been in politics for four years while your opponent has been at it since the 1970s, you are going to struggle to get attention. Your name recognition – except for the Cincinnati media market – is nothing to write home about.
And you can’t get people to support you if they haven’t heard of you.
So how to get attention?
Well, a series of statewide debates with Strickland would help.
Back in May, Butland wrote a letter to Dennis Willard, his opposite number in the Strickland campaign, proposing a series of six debates – just like the Democratic presidential candidates have agreed to, including front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Sittenfeld wants them to focus on the following topics – jobs and the economy, Social Security and Medicare, education and student loan debt, civil rights, trade agreements and foreign policy, and why each candidate thinks he would be the strongest to run against Portma.
Willard told WVXU "there will be plenty of time to debate the issues" during the campaign, but would not commit to any head-to-head debates with Sittenfeld.
Not hard to understand – they’re running against a candidate most Ohioans don’t know and they see no reason to help make him famous.
A Quinnipiac University Poll in June had Strickland up by six percentage points on Portman – down a bit from the nine point lead the former governor had in April. But Portman led Sittenfeld with 49 percent to the Cincinnati council member’s 24 percent.
It's going to take a whole lot more than an outraged Jim Ruvolo to turn those numbers around.