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.
An economic record like that makes it tough to run a campaign based on charges that Kasich and Portman have shipped jobs overseas while inviting Wall Street to have its way with defenseless blue-collar workers. Never mind that the charges are economically illiterate — in Portman’s case, they also are demonstrably false, and in Kasich’s case, the attacks have backfired.
At a time when 85 percent of Ohio voters say they know someone who is out of work or looking for a job, Strickland has mostly offered vague and unconvincing proposals, while Kasich’s relentless economic-policy rollouts and fiercely positive ads touting his record as a job creator have earned him a critical advantage on the issue.
Strickland has at least shown himself to be a relatively able campaigner. Not so Fisher. One of his constant themes is Portman’s alleged lack of sympathy for Regular Joes, but Fisher’s own blue-collar outreach has been hilariously inept. He infamously stood up a meeting of the Cleveland police patrolmen’s union, a group Portman had addressed. He first offering to meet with the group, then downgraded that offer to sending a campaign representative — who never showed up. The union complained that it looked like they are being taken for granted by the Democrats, which they probably are.
Fisher excoriates Portman for having served, briefly, as President Bush’s trade representative, and he blasts NAFTA at every turn. But his union supporters must notice that he campaigns in the company of Bill Clinton, the original Wall Street Democrat, who fought hard for NAFTA and signed it into law.
The corrupt incumbents of 2006 were a gift to Ohio Democrats. Without them, Fisher and Strickland are adrift. It’s a cliché in politics to call an opponent’s negative campaigning a sign of “desperation,” but it very well may be in these two cases. Ohio Democrats’ base is shrinking, and their coffers are running dry, and there is no George W. Bush to run against this time around. Instead, Democrats are trying to make a national hate figure of Ohio’s John Boehner, whom Buckeye State voters have been re-electing for 20 years, and who would be well positioned to do his home state a good turn or two if a Republican majority were to be sworn in this January, presumably making him speaker of the House. Ohio Democrats will run on class warfare, they’ll run on Boehner, they’ll run on the ghost of the Bush presidency — anything but their actual economic record.
– Mytheos Holt covers Ohio for National Review Online’s Battleground ’10 blog.