Ohio Democrats Aim to Stage a Comeback Against Well-Funded Sen. Rob Portman

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by Nick Castele

Ohio Democrats hope this year’s U.S. Senate race looks a lot different from their bruising defeat of 2014.

Back then, Democrats failed to unseat a single statewide Republican officeholder. This year, Democrats want to defeat Sen. Rob Portman, who’s seeking a second term.

Strickland Aims for a Comeback

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland hopes voters will return him to elected office this year. He’s scooped up the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and President Obama.

Strickland is focusing on pocketbook issues in his appeal to Democratic primary voters. He says he’ll defend unions, overtime pay and middle-class tax cuts in the Senate. In his words, he’ll advocate for working people, not the 1 percent.

“Not the hedge fund guys, not the Wall Streeters, not the Washington establishment, but actually working people,” Strickland said in an interview. “People who actually earn a living. And I want to make sure that people who have a job get a decent pay.”

A few years after losing the governor’s race to John Kasich in 2010, Strickland went to work for the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington, D.C.

Sittenfeld Calls for ‘Fresh Perspectives’

Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is challenging Strickland for the nomination.

“There is a strong sense all across the state that Washington’s broken, it’s dysfunctional, it’s not working,” Sittenfeld said, “and that part of the answer to that is let’s send some new leaders there, with fresh perspectives, with new ideas.”

Sittenfeld first won election to council in the 2011 election, in which he gained notice for his plentiful fundraising and his youth. He’s now 31 years old.

He’s gathered the endorsements the Akron Beacon Journal and the Plain Dealer, as well as former governor Richard Celeste.

Sittenfeld says he could work with Republicans on issues like criminal justice reform, but will also defend core Democratic planks.

“I’m never going to waver when it comes to a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “I’m never going to waver when it comes to marriage equality. I’m never going to waver when it comes to rejecting the notion that money equals speech somehow.”

A Shift on Guns

Sittenfeld and his supporters argue that he has more credibility on gun control than Strickland does. The former governor was a longtime gun rights supporter, but says acts of violence have led him to back gun restrictions, such as for people on the no-fly list.

“It’s not a shift due to political convenience,” Strickland said. “It’s a shift due to a range of things that have happened in our society over the last several years that causes me to embrace comprehensive background checks.”

Sittenfeld says Strickland has waffled on the subject in this race. The National Rifle Association is backing Rob Portman.

Portman Outpaces Democrats in Fundraising

Both Democrats are struggling to raise money apace with the big hauls brought in by Portman.

Since the start of last year, Portman has raised $10 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Compare that to Strickland’s $4 million, and Sittenfeld’s $1.5 million.

Outside political groups have also spent millions on this race—much of it, against Strickland.

“Job losses? Special interests? Ted Strickland’s record: Wrong for Ohio,” says one ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

A super PAC supporting Sittenfeld produced a video saying of Strickland, “he’s been described as ‘tired’ and ‘unsteady’ on the stump.”

Sittenfeld’s father contributed $100,000 to the group, which raised $735,000 last year.

And though there’s plenty of back-and-forth between the candidates in the media and in advertising, Strickland has declined invitations to debate his primary challengers, saying he’s focusing on defeating Portman.

Kelli Prather Campaigns on Equity in Health, Business

Another candidate angling for a chance at the nomination is Kelli Prather, an occupational therapist from Cincinnati.

“My platform is centered around healthcare, public safety, education, economic inclusion,” Prather said in an interview. “And as a civil rights activist, my goal would be to increase greater racial and socioeconomic equity to empower minority communities.”

It’s her first go at running for public office. Prather says she wants to ensure minority-owned businesses can thrive, and will work to remedy inequalities in public health.

“We have so many health disparities, particularly in the African-American community,” she said. “The infant mortality rate is extremely high, and African-American women are dying disproportionately.” Recently, she added, “I found out that two more of my friends died. One died of cervical cancer, and the other died of breast cancer.”

A January survey by Public Policy Polling has her about even with Sittenfeld at 10 percent of likely Democratic primary voters.

The latest from Quinnipiac says in a hypothetical general election matchup, Strickland is neck-and-neck with Rob Portman. Sittenfeld, meanwhile, was behind the GOP Senator by 19 points. 

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