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Democrats Skeptical Ted Strickland Will Face Primary

Strickland previously served in the House. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 4:48 p.m. | Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who is expected to announce a bid against Republican Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday , may get a clear shot at the nomination.  

The only Democrat in the race until now, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, is raking in donations from high-profile donors , announcing endorsements and putting out policy proposals. The Democrat recently told CQ Roll Call he is “running to win.”  

But Ohio Democrats expressed skepticism Sittenfeld will be a candidate long enough to do that. Of the many state Democrats interviewed for this story, most said they expect Sittenfeld will make a graceful exit, rather than face Strickland.  

“I don’t think there will be a primary in the end," said state Rep. David Leland, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman who is close to Strickland. "The inevitability of Ted Strickland being our nominee is eventually going to sink in.”  

All signs point to Strickland getting in the race: the Youngstown Vindicator reported  last week that Strickland has started to fundraise for a possible bid.  

"Strickland will make an announcement tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. regarding his potential run for the U.S. Senate in 2016," Dennis Willard, a spokesman for Strickland, said in an email Tuesday.  

Sittenfeld’s campaign has declined to directly address questions about whether he'll leave the primary to allow Strickland a clear shot at the nomination.  

"PG's priority is advancing his vision for growing wages, reducing student loan debt, and rebuilding the middle class, and as PG's said before, he admires Ted Strickland but is focused on his own campaign," Ramsey Reid, Sittenfeld's campaign manager, said in a statement provided Thursday to CQ Roll Call.  

Sittenfeld has at least one thing going for him if he decides to leave the race: his age. The 30-year-old will have more opportunities to run statewide in the future. What's more, Ohio Democrats said if he runs a solid and positive campaign, increases his name recognition and then bows out to back Strickland, he would earn their respect and gratitude — and perhaps their full support for his next campaign.  

In the meantime, speculation about Sittenfeld eventually dropping out of the primary might not help his own efforts.  

“I think it's really holding him back ’cause a lot of people are hesitant to commit if he's not in all the way," Ohio Democratic strategist Steve Fought said.  

Strickland's long history in Ohio Democratic politics gives him a wide base of support among the party's most faithful. Before winning a term as governor in 2006, he served in the House for six non-consecutive terms.  

"He really is the mentor of so many Ohio Democrats," Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said in an interview at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting. Pepper did not express support for either candidate and declined to speculate on a possible primary until the field had developed.  

But other Democrats publicly expressed allegiance to Strickland.  

“Ted’s like one of my dearest friends in the entire world, so I’m with Ted," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in a phone interview last week. "He’s just, he’s just my guy."  

Ryan considered seeking the Senate nomination, but decided against it earlier this month.  

Republicans appear to be anticipating Strickland as the nominee; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent out an email attacking him almost every day for the past few weeks.  

The former governor is a strong fundraiser, which would be helpful going up against Portman and his $5.8 million war chest. That sum alone makes Democrats generally nervous about a primary, which could sap the eventual nominee's resources.  

Sittenfeld's campaign has reportedly raised more than $500,000 so far, and he received the maximum allowable donation from Google executive Eric Schmidt.  

"In today’s world where someone without a primary running against someone with a primary can gain such a financial advantage, I do think it’s in the best interest of each party really to not have a big primary battle," Ryan said.  

Despite this, there are some Ohio Democrats who believe a primary could be healthy for the party. They point to a brutal loss in the 2014 governor’s race after the party cleared the field for the eventual nominee, Ed FitzGerald, who then ran a problematic campaign. Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican, crushed FitzGerald by more than 20 points.  

Also, in a swing state such as Ohio in a presidential campaign cycle, the Democratic nominee will likely have the necessary financial resources even with a primary.  

In spite of that, many Ohio Democrats still said they expect Sittenfeld to make an amicable exit from the race at some point in the next few months — after Strickland jumps in.  

"If he called me and asked me my opinion," Leland said, "and I like him, and I think he’s a good person, and I look forward to supporting him in the future. ... I would advise P.G. to not run in this primary and save his extraordinary talents and abilities for another race and another time."  

The race is rated Leans Republican by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.  

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