What would you call a candidate so desperate to win a Democratic U.S. Senate primary that he would be willing to do anything — even if it not only guarantees his eventual defeat to a far-right Republican but also takes down the rest of the ticket, including some congressional seats, and rips apart one of the country’s most active state Democratic parties, potentially wrecking it for decades to come?
I would call him Lee Fisher.
We just learned that, as the primary between Lt. Gov. Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to be the party’s Senate candidate rolls into its final weeks — early voting starts March 31, Election Day is May 4 — Fisher has made a move he’s been evasive about for a year. He’s formally requested the endorsement of the state party. His request triggers the seating of a screening committee to recommend endorsements in the race. Most Democrats were hoping that the party would continue its policy so far of not endorsing one candidate over the other, understanding the repercussions of the bloodletting that would follow.
Now, with the primary looming and his huge fundraising advantage not translating into an obvious edge — the race appears to be a tossup — Lee is making a desperate and reckless gamble. As a three-decade player in state politics, he’s got a lot of connections, and he’s spent a year twisting arms for endorsements of elected officials. He wasn’t able to wring an endorsement out of his home county’s party, Cuyahoga, the state’s most populous and most Democratic county. With a full plate of its own problems and probably about equal support for the two Senate candidates among its members, Cuyahoga Democrats passed on making their own trainwreck worse.
So Lee decided to go for the biggie — the state party endorsement. Jennifer’s campaign is requesting a no endorsement, but if the state party goes through with it, she’ll fight for it, knowing full well that Lee’s lengthy list of connections give him at least a slight advantage.
Here’s the problem. With support for the candidates so even and Lee’s campaign growing increasingly bullying — for instance, they’ve been calling through a list of hostesses at a Brunner fundraiser last Sunday, attempting to intimidate them — the endorsement of either candidate is likely to leave wounds that won’t heal anytime soon. That means an army of activist Democrats who won’t be motivated to work this year. The rage at Governor Strickland will be so thick you could cut it with a knife. No one will be interested in working for the down-ticket candidates. A lot of Democrats will stay home in November. (Since I am openly a Brunner supporter, I want to make it clear I think endorsing her would be a bad idea too, antagonizing Fisher supporters who have been active in Ohio politics for years. But Jennifer is not pushing for the endorsement and doesn’t think this is a good idea either.)
Many Ohio Democrats are still nursing anger from past poor choices. In 2006, for instance, the party endorsed eventual primary and general election winner for attorney general, Marc Dann, passing over former Cleveland law director Subodh Chandra. When Dann was forced to resign after a sex scandal, there was a lot of “I told you so.” I know people who still carry grudges over the party’s treatment of U.S. Senate candidate Mary Boyle in the 1990s, which they believe was rooted in the party’s sexism. The party still has issues with that.
Now, facing a near-Depression economy in Ohio and energized but totally crazed Republicans, this is a risky time for the Ohio Democratic Party to open up a seismic rift. It’s a doomsday gamble for Fisher, already facing an uphill climb against Republican Rob Portman — a climb he can’t possibly make with half the state’s Democrats furious with him.
There is another option, although it’s probably not what Fisher has in mind: The party can endorse both candidates. Some think the screening process should only be used to eliminate obviously unqualified or unserious candidates. Both Lee and Jennifer have served in statewide offices and have been campaigning vigorously for a full year. Neither deserves to be endorsed over the other by the state party.
If you are in Ohio— or even if you are not, because the ripples of this will be felt far beyond Ohio — please contact both the Ohio Democratic Party and the governor’s office and urge them — politely — not to choose between the two candidates. Point out that in this tough year they cannot afford to alienate supporters of either Brunner or Fisher. Remind them that loss of statewide offices — and loss of the apportionment board — means a rigged advantage for Republicans for another decade, something that could have a national impact. Ask why they want to give Rob Portman yet another advantage in this race. I believe state party chair Chris Redfern and executive director Doug Kelly are ultimately reasonable people. Although it sure took them long enough to listen to the party faithful about the folly of slating an anti-choice, anti-gay radical for statewide office, they did finally get the message. They need to get this one — and so does the governor, whose own office could be a risk in a party split.
Ohio Democratic Party: 614.221.6563. www.ohiodems.org
Governor Ted Strickland: 614.466.3555. www.governor.ohio.gov