On September 9, in a speech to organized labor, Ohio governor Ted Strickland took to the podium and, obviously determined to do his best impression of Phil Davison, belted out an enraged attack on Republicans.
“They want to change labor rights, they want to change this country,” Strickland bellowed. “And we say to them, ‘HELL NO!’” “Hell, no!” is, of course, a motto associated with another Ohio politician, Republican John Boehner.
Strickland may be forgiven if he’s feeling a little desperate. He and lieutenant governor Lee Fisher, who is running to replace retiring Republican senator George Voinovich, are respectively eleven and eight points behind their opponents in the polls, according to the Real Clear Politics averages. In response, both have adopted entirely negative strategies, attacking their opponents as pro–Wall Street, pro-outsourcing, and anti-worker, a strategy clearly designed to excite Ohio Democrats’ union base.
It hasn’t worked — and not, as Democrats suggest, merely because they lack sufficient money with which to broadcast their vitriol. Strickland enjoys a financial advantage over his opponent, John Kasich, but he polls even more poorly against him than Fisher (who has to ration his ads due to scanty funding) does against his opponent, Rob Portman. Ohio voters simply aren’t buying the class-warfare rhetoric this time around. It turns out that 2010 is, so far, not much like 2008 or 2006, leaving Ohio Democrats with a couple of big problems. Having ridden a wave of anti-Republican sentiment to power in the last cycle, neither Democrat has established a record that resonates strongly enough with restive Ohio voters to compete with the nationalized, Republican-friendly, throw-the-bums-out mood of 2010. Strickland is giving his class-warfare speeches to voters who care more about the immediate, concrete problem of unemployment than they do about electing politicians with whom they feel some sort of nebulous class solidarity. Fisher, meanwhile, has not given voters much reason to believe that he actually possesses the common touch in the first place.
There is a kind of political and rhetorical reversal at work in the Ohio governor’s race, with the incumbent running like a challenger and the challenger running like an incumbent. This is no accident: Strickland and Fisher were elected on an anti-corruption, anti-Republican wave that started with the “Coingate” scandal in 2006, but that wave has passed. With the Republicans enjoying national momentum and the Democrats unable to develop a coherent domestic-policy vision in the wake of the beatings they took over health care and the stimulus bills, they are reverting to what made them successful the first time around. Which is to say, they’re running against a Republican establishment that was largely liquidated in 2006 and 2008. You can’t run against the establishment when you and your party are the establishment. With Obama & Co. controlling all of official Washington, it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who are in the position of having to defend their records.
Those records don’t look good.
In 2006, Strickland ran on a promise to increase economic growth at a time when Ohio’s recession was purely local. Fisher, then his running mate, doubled down on his economic-growth position by taking over the Ohio Department of Development after he was elected, asking voters to judge him on his record. Last month, Strickland’s Department of Development faced a scandal when it was found to have been outsourcing jobs itself — hardly the sort of thing the hardhats want to hear about. Since Fisher ran the department and staffed it with handpicked subordinates, the outsourcing scandal is sticking to him. And Strickland’s inability to keep jobs in Ohio has been so well publicized that he’s even been blamed for the Cavaliers’ losing Lebron James to Florida as a consequence of Ohio’s punishing income tax — a burden Kasich wants to eliminate.