Want a Kasich-FitzGerald debate? Sorry, not going to happen

Sep 28, 2014

For the first time since 1978, Ohioans will vote for governor without having a chance to hear the two major party candidates go head-to-head in a debate.

That’s nine gubernatorial election cycles ago, folks.

But Republican incumbent John Kasich, ahead in the polls and sitting on a huge pot of money, apparently doesn’t see any need to give a free platform to Democratic candidate Ed FitzGerald. The Cuyahoga County executive is so strapped for cash he can’t run his own significant TV ad campaign and has basically turned a good chunk of what campaign money he has over to the Ohio Democratic Party to see if the party can use it to boost the Democratic vote.

The last time a sitting governor passed on debating his opponent was 36 years ago, when then-Republican governor Jim Rhodes said no to debates with Democrat Dick Celeste. Rhodes eked out a narrow win in that race; and Celeste came back four years later to win the governor’s office, keeping it for two terms.

Even in 1994, when a little-known Democratic state senator from eastern Ohio named Rob Burch took on an enormously popular Republican governor in George Voinovich, there was a debate – it took place at the CET studios in Cincinnati and was broadcast around the state.

It didn’t help – Burch ended up with a mere 25 percent of the vote, the most lop-sided gubernatorial contest in decades.

How much it would help FitzGerald, whose poll numbers are not good at all – the Columbus Dispatch mail poll had him trailing by 30 percentage points – is debatable, but it would at least give him some of the statewide exposure that he can't buy with TV ads.

The two sides held negotiations over the possibility of debates, but those talks broke down some time ago.

The Kasich campaign basically said this campaign is no contest; and there was no reason to debate. The word from the Kasich camp was that the FitzGerald campaign had imploded and there was no point in continuing talks about debates.

“We think moving on is the best thing to do and, in addition to sitting down with several major news organizations across Ohio, we’ll be seeking other, additional avenues for the governor to talk about his accomplishments, answer whatever direct, tough questions people may have and discuss his plans for Ohio’s future,’’ Kasich campaign spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp said in a statement to the Columbus Dispatch.

Last Tuesday, FitzGerald was in Cincinnati with most of the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket for the sixth stop in an eight-city “Tour to Restore Ohio.”

About 75 people showed up early in the morning at Washington Park to hear FitzGerald, attorney general candidate David Pepper, secretary of state candidate Nina Turner, state auditor candidate John Patrick Carney, and Ohio Supreme Court candidate Tom Letson make stump speeches – all aimed at trying to pump up the Democratic vote, with only a week remaining before early voting would begin.

After the Washington Park rally, as the Democratic candidates were loading onto their bus for the next stop in the tour, FitzGerald, in an interview, expressed his frustration over the Kasich campaign’s lack of interest in debating.

“There’s a reason why they won’t agree to a debate,’’ FitzGerald told WVXU. “John Kasich will be the first governor since the 1970s who refuses to debate; and it is because if you look at the basic issues about funding education, supporting voting rights, supporting women’s rights, how good the economy is really doing and whether it is really working for working people, people agree with us on those issues.

“That’s why they’re going to pretty extreme lengths to avoid having that discussion and we have to try to force that discussion as best we can,’’ FitzGerald said.

That is why he has turned over much of his money – the campaign won’t say how much - to the Ohio Democratic Party for get-out-the-vote efforts. To FitzGerald, that means “you’re not going to see as many commercials for the Democratic side, but there is going to be a very targeted effort through door-to-door, phone banks, some direct mail to communicate with voters.”

Mack Mariani, associate professor of political science at Xavier University, said it is going to be very difficult for the Ohio Democratic Party to stir excitement among its base voters when the candidate at the top of the ticket has run such a weak campaign. Politico.com this week called FitzGerald’s campaign one of the four worst campaigns in the country.

“It makes it more difficult without that excitement in the governor’s race,’’ Mariani said.

The Democratic politicians who might have generated some excitement, Mariani said, didn’t run. He mentioned former Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory as a possibility. And Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman might have fallen into that category too. Both are African-Americans and might have excited the black Democratic voters who make up such an important part of the Democratic base in Ohio.

“But FitzGerald is the one who stepped up; and you have to give him credit for that,’’ Mariani said.

But that won’t get him on the air with TV ads; and it certainly won’t get him the exposure that statewide debates could give him.

Tuesday, at the Washington Park rally, Nina Turner told crowd that “the other side might have money, but money won’t buy you love.”

But it might just buy you an election.

And now Kasich pulled a “Jim Rhodes” on him, taking away any chance FitzGerald had for a statewide audience – for free.