Senator Rob Portman faces a tough reelection in 2016.
Senator Rob Portman faces a tough reelection in 2016.

Former Ohio Democratic Governor Ted Strickland’s announcement that he has decided to challenge Senator Rob Portman in 2016 has to be considered a boon for the party.  He has considerable name ID, a “supposed” moderate record that appeals to swing voters and the ability to raise large sums of cash which he will need.

The most obvious result of his decision is it is yet another sign Democrats have no bench and need to keep turning to legacy candidates to win key races.  Notably, Democrats are already encouraging 30-year-old announced candidate P.G. Sittenfeld to exit the primary.

But once you get past the joy and look at the actual dynamics of the race it becomes very clear just how much of an uphill climb this race is for Strickland.  Long gone are the days when Strickland could lay claim to having blue-collar roots and stake a claim as a moderate.

Still, GOP groups obviously long considered him the toughest contender out there.  Case in point: GOP groups have attacked his short tenure at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.  Beyond this, voters may not have a rosy view of his recent stint as Governor.

Strickland first was elected to the 6th CD, a massive district that stretched from the NE to SE side of the state.  Defeating an incumbent Congressman in 1992, he suffered the fate of many Democrats in 1994 and lost reelection.  But he reclaimed his seat in 1996 and held it until 2006 when he opted to run for Governor.  Strickland’s statewide win was fueled by the claim he represented the blue-collar worker and combined with the terrible national environment for Republicans he utterly crushed his opponent, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

In 2010, facing a strong anti-incumbent wave and voter backlash over job losses Strickland mounted a spirited defense of his office against former Congressman John Kasich.  Ultimately, Kasich prevailed, but by a much narrower margin than expected.

When one looks at the areas where Strickland prevailed and didn’t in 2010, warnings bells start going off about the viability of his 2016 bid.  Strickland won few competitive counties, including Hamilton and Butler (Cincinnati and suburbs).  He won the traditionally liberal Franklin County and Northeast part of the state and most of his old Congressional district.  Even in 2006, when Strickland was winning by 20%+ statewide he under-performed in strongly Democratic counties across the state.

Recent events also raise doubts about his viability.  Whites and particularly Strickland’s old constituency, blue-collar whites, have increasingly fled the Democratic Party in massive numbers.  Can Strickland really appeal to these voters in a federal race where polarization plays far more of a role than a gubernatorial election?

The advantages of his opponent, Senator Rob Portman should also not be discounted.  Portman is a good fit for the state in the mold of former Senator George Voinovich.  He is pro-life but not antagonistic about the subject, announced his support for gay marriage and a staunch fiscal conservative.  More importantly for his reelection, he has a $5.8 million war chest he can unleash on Strickland to define his tenure as Governor.

Not that this makes Democrats any less excited about his candidacy.  They reason if nothing else Strickland can force the GOP to divert resources from other tough races to this one in a bid to hold the competitive seat.  They further reason that Hillary will prove to be a boon to Strickland’s candidacy as she focuses on wooing blue-collar workers and working women back into the party’s fold (maybe she can say she was broke when she left the White House again).

Republican’s should not take this race for granted.  But even with Strickland’s candidacy this race should still be considered favorable to the GOP.


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