Ohio Democrats are expecting a crowded primary to challenge Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in 2016, and the recent announcement by Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld may have accelerated its formation.
The 30-year-old Sittenfeld announced Thursday that he would get into the race. Democrats describe him as a charismatic and a rising star within the party, but his early announcement speaks to the fact that this local office holder has hurdles to raise his name recognition and ample cash for a federal race. And other Democratic candidates won't let him do that for too long without any competition. "It’s the starting gun for sure," said Ohio Democratic strategist Steve Fought. "They can’t let anybody out there unimpeded in clear water."
There are a number of contenders who have expressed interest.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call in early December that he was considering it, and said Thursday that it was still very much on the table. In interview in the Speaker's Lobby, Ryan said he would make a decision "in the next month."
"I’ve got a seven-month-old baby at home that I’m completely enamored with, and everything else is not as interesting as he is," Ryan, 41, explained. "So that’s kind of my big decision now, do I want to be away from home over these precious first year or two."
Ryan said he had spoken to Sittenfeld "a few times," calling him a "great guy, a great candidate, great young leader." But Ryan said he thought he'd be in a stronger position than the City Councilman if he enters the race.
"I think we have a lot of support around the state in a lot of the different interest groups that support Democrats, and we’ve been raising money nationally now for awhile, and we would try to bring that all to bear on the Senate race," he added.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland, 73, told the Columbus Dispatch Wednesday that he was also considering a bid. Strickland, who currently serves as the president of the Center for American Progress, would enter the race well-known by Ohio voters, and, perhaps more importantly, by the state's donors, likely giving him more time to weigh a decision than other contenders.
State Rep. David Leland, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Strickland had been thinking "very seriously about it" when the two spoke Wednesday afternoon, and that while the governor had given no specific timeline, the two "were talking in the context of February or March."
Leland said he believed Strickland could clear the Democratic field if he got in, though other Ohio Democrats were not necessarily on board with that conclusion.
Ohio Democrats name Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman as another strong contender. Coleman announced in November that he would not seek another term as mayor. He is currently working to bring the Democratic National Convention to Columbus, which would be a boon for the city, and to his Senate bid, should he decide to run.
Fought also mentioned former Rep. Betty Sutton and state Sen. Nina Turner, who lost a bid for Ohio secretary of state in 2014.
A primary would likely force Democrats to use energy and resources that they might rather use to challenge Portman, a formidable fundraiser.
"I’m of the school that it’s always better, if you have a big race, that you don’t expend all of your human and financial resources in a primary," Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call outside the House chamber Thursday. "But it’s the American way."
Beatty has said she will definitely not be a candidate.
Ryan said he had no qualms about getting into a Democratic primary, noting he has done so before, but that Democrats might do better to avoid one against Portman.
"Sometimes it takes a big primary to clear things out and sharpen your message, and it could ultimately be a good thing if it needs to be. But ultimately, I think with Sen. Portman — you know he’s got a lot of money, he’s a good candidate, established figure in Ohio — I think not having a primary would be best for Democrats, but we’ll see how it works out," Ryan said.
The nomination this year could be too great a prize to convince anyone to drop out. For one thing, it's a presidential year in the ultimate presidential swing state, a state that often determines which party wins the presidency. The Democratic nominee for Senate will have no shortage of support from the party's nominee for president, plus a coordinated ground game operation and a significant turnout boost.
There's also a chance that the Republican presidential nominee will chose Portman as a running mate. He was on the shortlist to be Mitt Romney's running mate last cycle, and he is a close friend of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is actively exploring a presidential bid.
If Portman were on the ticket, that could change the game for Democrats. Portman would have to focus his attention on the presidential race, which would almost certainly require spending a lot of time outside of Ohio. His Senate campaign would likely become less active as a result.
The race is rated Leans Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
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