Politics

The One Senate Race Democrats Let Get Away

Ted Strickland's failure in Ohio raises questions over whether the party should continue pursuing white working-class voters

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, right, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, left, speak at a campaign stop in Marietta, Ohio. (Alex Roarty / CQ Roll Call)

CAMBRIDGE, Ohio — Ted Strickland and a lone supporter sat side by side Wednesday morning, six days before the election, getting to know each other.

Darwin Jirles, 73, had come to meet his former governor at a campaign stopover inside Theo’s, an 85-year-old family-style restaurant in this small southeast Ohio town known for its Coney Island hot dogs and homemade pie.

There were no other elected officials, campaign surrogates, or welcoming committees in attendance that morning: Even the local Democratic Party chairwoman, who had greeted Strickland’s aides when they arrived, left soon thereafter because she said she had work to do. 

Inside the restaurant, dozens of other tables sat empty, save for two sisters who said they had twice backed Strickland for governor — but were considering voting for Republican Sen. Rob Portman this time around.

The 75-year-old Strickland spoke to both of them before sitting down at his own table. He and Jirles, who is retired, talked for nearly an hour about their childhood churches, the local Democrat’s father-in-law (the late Congressman William Natcher), and the difficulties of a polarized electorate. (Strickland said the country is “almost ungovernable.”)

They also marveled at the cherry pie Strickland was munching on.

This is about how Strickland’s campaign for Senate has gone — both across Ohio but especially in this part of the state.

Democrats once believed that Strickland could win because of his decades-long connection to this Appalachia region and its heavily white, working-class voters who otherwise had become reliable Republican voters. The onetime lawmaker had represented parts of southeast Ohio for a dozen years in Congress, after all, before serving a term as governor. Throughout his campaign, he’s made campaigning in this region a priority.

Things haven’t worked out the way he expected. Polls show Strickland trailing Portman by 20 points in a race his party abandoned months ago. The damage is even worse in his old 6th Congressional District, where surveys from Portman’s campaign show the incumbent leading by more than 30 points.

Democrats have long since moved on to other states as they try to retake control of the Senate, frustrated at their failure in Ohio but confident they can make up the lost ground elsewhere. But Strickland’s failure is a reminder of a missed opportunity for his party — as well as a warning for the next election cycle.  

In 2018, Democrats are tasked with defending seats in Montana, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri, states that resemble this region of Ohio more than the battlegrounds in play this year.

Republicans say they already drew up their battle plan for those races in Ohio.  

“It puts these Democrats in these states on notice,” said John Ashbrook, a strategist for Portman’s campaign. “If you claim to be an advocate for the working class, you better have the record to prove it. Because if there’s anything that shows otherwise, it’s going to be very hard for you to appeal to this group.”

Coal and guns

It feels like a long time ago now, but when Strickland became a candidate in February 2015, the former governor and favorite of Democratic leadership was touted as one of the party’s top recruits. The numbers bore that out: Six consecutive polls from Quinnipiac University found Strickland leading Portman.

“In 2015, there was not one poll that had us winning,” said Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager.

But when Strickland entered the race, the Portman campaign hatched a plan to target the Democrat on two issues: coal and guns.

The ex-lawmaker had taken a job as president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington, a position, the Republicans argued, that proved he had abandoned his old values for those of a big-city liberal. Nicknaming him “Retread Ted,” and simultaneously castigating him for the job losses that occurred in the state while he was governor, Portman’s campaign found an opening that they could exploit.

“Over a period of about a year, that point was drilled home over and over again,” Ashbrook said. “It took about a year to flip his image to upside down.”

In one ad, two coal miners criticize the onetime governor for siding with President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the issue of coal.

Ted Strickland has turned his back on us,” one of the men dressed as a coal miner says. “Like a turncoat, he sided with Barack and Hillary when he went to Washington.”

It was part of an unrelenting campaign from Portman and well-funded allies, who spent heavily to discredit Strickland with his former base.

“What happened is the idea of Ted Strickland ran head on to the reality of Ted Strickland,” Bliss said. “Meaning that the Ted Strickland of 1976 or 1986 or 1996 is not the Ted Strickland of 2016.”

The ads run against him have “obviously” had an impact, said Strickland, who said part of his problem in the region has been not being able to spend enough time campaigning there.

“I just wish I had more time to communicate with them,” he said. “Because I’ve spent the bulk of my time elsewhere, because I was best known down here.”

Strickland has tried to fight back by highlighting each candidate’s biography. Strickland, who was born in the small town of Lucasville, accuses Portman of growing up in a wealthy family who doesn’t understand the everyday struggle of people who aren’t rich.

Anger

In an interview, he admitted that the criticism that he had forgotten his roots angered him.

“That really angers me, because I know Rob Portman,” Strickland said. “I know where he came from. The private schools, I know the privileged life he’s lived. He’s never had to worry about whether or not his family has health care. He could afford college for his kids.”

“And he comes down here, and it’s almost laughable for people who really know him, for him to put on a pair of blue jeans and borrow a hard hat from someone,” he continued. “And be walking around, pretending that he understands what it’s like to live in Appalachia. He has no idea.”

Democratic strategists reject the notion that Strickland’s struggles are any kind of warning to the rest of the party.

To them, the candidate has experienced something akin to a total systems failure, based first and foremost in his inability to raise money.

Strickland has raised just $10 million this campaign, less than half the nearly $20 million Portman raised. The spending gap, further widened by Portman’s outside group allies, helped the GOP define Strickland while he lacked the resources to fire back.

The candidate has only himself to blame for his anemic fundraising, Democrats say.

“Ted can be at an event at 7 a.m. and campaign all day until 7 at night,” said one Democratic strategist. “Which is great, but some time, you need to sit in the call-time room. And Ted can’t do that.”

The strategist added: “When you combine the best campaign on the Republican side with the worst campaign on the Democratic side in the same state, you’re going to get your ass kicked.”

Different approach?

Strickland’s failure to win the white working-class vote — and the steady drift of those voters away from the Democratic Party as a whole (a shift accelerated this election by Donald Trump’s popularity with them) — raises an important question for the party: Should they even try to nominate candidates who pledge to win them over? Or should they instead try to simply rally their base?

It’s an argument that surfaced in Ohio, in fact, earlier this year, when Strickland faced Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld in the Senate Democratic primary. Sittenfeld, who is just 32, argued then that the party’s candidates should focus on motivating younger, urban-dwelling voters who form the party’s modern base of support.

Sittenfeld lost the primary, badly, and has since endorsed Strickland. In an interview, he said the party should continue to court white working-class voters, whom, for policy reasons, he considers a natural part of the Democratic Party’s coalition.

But he emphasized again that Democrats should consider backing candidates who have a natural home among the party’s most loyal supporters.

“You have to play to your strengths,” Sittenfeld said. “If you’re Steph Curry, keep hoisting a lot of 3s. Don’t try to go into the post.”

He continued: “If you’re Democrats, you really need to amplify your margins in urban communities and with millennial voters.”

(Republicans, for their part, say Sittenfeld’s lack of a record might have made him a tougher candidate than Strickland.)

Back in Cambridge, Jerry Edgerton, 55, and her 51-year-old sister, Theresa, had just spoken with Strickland inside Theo’s. They both said they liked and respected Strickland and voted for him twice for governor.

They also each dismissed the attacks they’ve seen levied against the former congressman, saying they were either unfair or didn’t accurately depict his positions.

And yet, according to both women, they might each vote for Portman on Tuesday.  

“He’s brought in jobs,” Edgerton said.

The sisters asked Strickland for a picture with them before leaving.

“Come back and try the cherry pie,” Strickland said as he posed with them. “It’s very good.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.