The Other Candidate

Fingerhut Now Runs Against Expectations

Posted August 8, 2003 at 5:50pm

With the Jerry Springer media frenzy now a part of 2004 Ohio Senate race history, state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D) has the campaign megaphone all to himself as he seeks to draw attention to his uphill battle against Sen. George Voinovich (R).

But with the millionaire former Cincinnati mayor-turned-talk-show-host out of the picture, the question now is, will anyone listen?

Springer’s six-month flirtation with seeking the Democratic nod drew unprecedented media coverage to a race that neither party operatives nor political handicappers pegged as competitive heading into the cycle. Springer announced Wednesday that he would not run for Senate, citing the inability to distance himself from the antics of his show enough to be taken seriously by voters.

Fingerhut, a one-term Congressman who was swept out of office by the GOP tidal wave in 1994, entered the race in March and last week admitted he is happy to have the field to himself once again.

“I’m actually very glad that he decided not to run because instead of the next seven months talking about whether he’s the right guy for the party or not, I get to talk about my vision for the future of Ohio,” Fingerhut said in an interview.

Fingerhut makes clear that he isn’t expecting much help from the national party in that endeavor, and that doesn’t bother him either.

“I know what they think,” he said, referring to party operatives in Washington. “They look at a race — they’ve got their races around the country that are targeted — then they look at this race and they see an incumbent Senator who’s got the amount of money you would expect an incumbent to have. And then they see a state Senator starting out a campaign from scratch, and they think you can’t do it. So they put their attention somewhere else. That’s fine. Again, I understand how that works.”

Although some Democratic Senators had publicly panned Springer’s candidacy, some party strategists were privately hopeful the millionaire would run.

The party’s interest in Springer’s candidacy was underscored by a trip to Cincinnati by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Andy Grossman on the eve of Springer’s announcement last week.

While Springer characterized the message coming from the meeting as “please run, please run, please run,” a DSCC spokesman maintains that the purpose of the trip was only to find out what Springer’s announcement was going to be.

“That’s an inaccurate account,” DSCC Communications Director Michael Siegel said of Springer’s description of the meeting during an appearance Wednesday on CNN’s “Crossfire.” Siegel said Grossman went to Ohio only to “ascertain what Springer’s intentions were.”

While Siegel didn’t dispute Fingerhut’s status as an underdog right now, he also said that isn’t a bad position for the state Senator 16 months before the election.

“Eric Fingerhut could be the Seabiscuit of this race,” Siegel said, adding that Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and insurgent Democratic presidential contender, is a prime example of why underdogs should not be underestimated.

Democrats believe a faltering economy may help put into play Senate races now viewed as long shots.

“The failed economy is going to be effective in a lot of states, and it could be effective in Ohio,” Siegel said.

For his part, Fingerhut shrugged off the local party activist support that Springer had received within the state. The talk-show host actively worked the rubber-chicken circuit this year, keynoting Democratic dinners and drawing sellout crowds.

Fingerhut said the focus of the media and the political establishment on Springer has allowed him to build a strong foundation for his campaign. He also said he expects that the party’s leaders will support the eventual Senate nominee.

“The same people who thought Jerry Springer was a great candidate are the same people who think I don’t have a chance,” he said. “And they were wrong about Springer because he pulled out because he knew he couldn’t even win a primary against me. And they’re going to be wrong about me.”

Voinovich showed $3.4 million in the bank at the end of June, compared to $233,000 for Fingerhut.

Still, Fingerhut touts the fact that he received donations from 1,500 individuals in Ohio during the second quarter of the year and that he has already raised more money than each of the three Democrats who ran in the 2000 Senate primary.

That year, Sen. Mike DeWine (R) eventually defeated former Ohio State Board of Trustees chairman Ted Celeste (D), 60 percent to 36 percent. Celeste spent $477,000 on the race and put up only a single Internet ad.

Fingerhut also disagreed with the idea that Springer would have re-energized the downtrodden party and that his ability to self-fund the race would have made it more competitive.

“Clearly the party has been challenged to win elections in Ohio over the last decade. But to choose as your vehicle to do that somebody who would alienate a good chunk of your own base, every independent swing voter in the state and energize the other side, was something that never made any sense to me,” Fingerhut said.

A source close to Springer pointedly noted that the Senators who disparaged the controversial talk-show host got what they asked for.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), for example, threatened to campaign for Voinovich if Springer was the nominee, and DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) had called the talk- show host potentially “radioactive.” He also said the race would be up to voters in Ohio to decide.

“Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Jon Corzine and others have now gotten their wish,” the source said. “They will have a state Senator and his $230,000 to run against George Voinovich, and we will get rolled again.”

Fingerhut brushed aside that comment and reiterated he’s not looking to Washington for support, at least not now.

“We’re building a base of support among people who want change in the state,” he said. “That’s something that no one from Washington can do or should do. That’s my job here in Ohio. When they see the poll numbers moving and when they see this campaign moving, then I’m confident that they’ll realize they were wrong. But it’s up to me to prove it and I’m not expecting anything from anybody and that’s what I’m going to do.”