There will be blood

From the October 2010 edition

By all accounts, the Ohio governor’s race between incumbent Ted Strickland and John Kasich is a tossup as the candidates head into the heat of the political season—the brutal stretch run from Labor Day to Nov. 2. Based on their performances so far, both have to be thanking the Gods of Political Fortune that they’re running stride for wobbly stride with each other.

Neither campaign has gained traction even though both candidates are political veterans with successful track records. Kasich became a national figure in the 1990s as a Republican U.S. House rep from Westerville, earning a reputation as an independent-minded budget hawk. Strickland also served in the U.S. House (for six terms) before pulling in unlikely Democratic voters in rural counties for a landslide win in the 2006 governor’s race.

While each candidate has brought in heavyweights to stump for them—former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for Kasich and President Obama for Strickland—both spent most of the summer deflecting criticism: Strickland for failing to turn Ohio’s economy around during his first four-year term and Kasich for his job as a managing director for Lehman Brothers, the investment firm that collapsed in 2008, triggering the financial crisis. The campaign has turned negative unusually early, with Strickland hammering Kasich for his Lehman ties and the media pumping out stories on unflattering Inspector General reports, campaign trail flubs, even aggrieved waiters.

As the battle heads into the fall, Strickland is catching up to Kasich, who’s benefited from an anti-incumbent mood among voters. Kasich’s lead over the governor had fallen to its lowest level to date among likely voters, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll in early August. The survey found Kasich leading 45 percent to 42 percent, down from a 48-43 edge two weeks earlier.

And it appears unless there is a monumental blunder by either side, the race will remain tight until Election Day. Columbus Monthly spoke with various political experts to map out how either Kasich or Strickland can win in November. Here are the blueprints to victory for each.

HOW STRICKLAND WINS

Take advantage of incumbency

The conventional wisdom about this year’s elections across the country is that incumbents are in trouble. The unrest, symbolized by the Tea Party movement, will be the catalyst behind throwing the bums out in November and starting anew.

Yet, it seems as if the Tea Party hasn’t really taken hold in Ohio. And while Strickland’s approval rating (43 percent, at last count) is nothing to boast about, it could be worse. “One can certainly argue that under these circumstances, [Strickland’s] campaign has been doing some things right,” says political science professor John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

And don’t overlook the power of the incumbency, even now. Green says one of the reasons incumbents are difficult to defeat is they are widely known—and their challengers aren’t, including Kasich, according to recent polls. Even though he’s hosted a television show on Fox News, Kasich has been out of politics since his aborted presidential run in 2000.

So the governor has tried to capitalize on Kasich’s lack of familiarity with voters by going negative: Strickland came out early and hard trying to pin the label of Mr. Wall Street on Kasich with a $3 million ad blitz attacking the former congressman’s work with Lehman. Kasich also came under fire for allowing limited access to his 2008 tax return to show he didn’t leave Lehman with a so-called “golden parachute” bonus as the company went bankrupt. The return reported that Kasich made $182,622 in annual salary as well as a $432,200 bonus. He also was paid $40,000 per motivational speech and an average of $6,000 per show he anchored on Fox. (Strickland has released 10 years worth of tax returns while Kasich has declined to make available any other year.)

“A lot of that criticism may be effective simply because most Ohioans know very little about him,” Green says. “The things they learn from the Strickland campaign may be the only things they know about him.”

Green thinks the Strickland ads have worked so far in keeping the race close, and “the mere fact that Kasich responded suggested, at least in the minds of the Kasich campaign, that Strickland’s ads were effective.” (In July, Kasich ran an ad in which he said, “Here’s the truth. I didn’t run Lehman Brothers. I was one of 700 managing directors. I worked in a two-man office in Columbus.”)

Other advantages for a sitting politician are free publicity and the ability to attract money. Many politicians dread spending their summer months on the campaign trail, but Strickland thrives on it. This summer, Strickland managed to fill his calendar with statewide travel to make official announcements as governor and also benefit from media coverage to help his campaign. Add to that the fact Strickland had more than $9.7 million in his campaign account as of the end of July, about $1.8 million more than Kasich. Such groups as labor unions, the Ohio Democratic Party, trial lawyers and MoveOn.org were shelling out money for negative ads to attack Kasich, helping Strickland preserve his account until it’s needed in the last 60 days.

Overcoming high unemployment and a terrible budget

Some critics harp that Strickland’s tactic of trying to pin Kasich to the greed, incompetence and hubris of Wall Street shows that he has little to brag about during his tenure as governor. “Ted Strickland, by devoting nearly all his early resources to attacking John Kasich, has hurt himself with independent voters who want to hear more substantive and positive messages,” says Republican consultant Mark Weaver. “He will likely come to regret that decision.”

Primarily, the Strickland administration has been plagued by persistent unemployment, averaging more than 10 percent statewide, and the possibility of an $8 billion state budget deficit two years from now when federal stimulus money runs out. In addition, his term has been marked by battles with the Republican-held Senate over fiscal disagreements that led to a stalemate in 2009 that forced the state to miss its deadline for a budget for the first time in 18 years. For instance, the Senate would not go along with Strickland’s plan to place slot machines at horse tracks. Instead, the governor had to postpone the final year of a five-year state income tax reduction to balance the state budget. Even supporters weren’t happy with some of Strickland’s cuts, particularly those affecting social services.

“The biggest issue is jobs,” says GOP consultant Terry Casey of Columbus. “And the second biggest issue is jobs.”

The only way the governor can minimize the damage on this issue is if Ohio starts restoring more of the nearly 400,000 jobs lost during Strickland’s first term. But time is running out for anything dramatic to change that potentially fatal fact.

So far, Strickland has benefited from Kasich’s campaign offering few ideas on how to jumpstart the state’s economy, except for Kasich’s vague suggestion on phasing out Ohio’s personal income tax cut. And Green says the fact the race is close means Ohio voters understand that the state’s persistent unemployment preceded Strickland’s tenure and is tied to the national economy. Strickland has managed to deflect some backlash by blaming the Bush administration and partisan gridlock at the Statehouse for placing Ohio in a bad economic situation today.

In the meantime, Strickland will try to distract voters by pointing out his accomplishments: balancing the state budget without any tax increases, introducing “an evidence-based model” that changes the way Ohio schools are funded and institutes new teaching methods and student assessment, working with state legislators to pass a $1.57 billion jobs stimulus package in 2008 (which Strickland insists has softened the blow of a national recession and collapse of the housing market), freezing college tuition for two years and getting an energy bill passed that sets goals for creating a “green” economy.

Build on his strengths

Public opinion polls show, for the most part, that Ohioans still trust and like Strickland, in spite of the struggling economy, budget deficits and cutbacks in public services. Even a delay in the final phase of a state-income tax cut didn’t appear to affect the governor’s overall approval ratings. In short, plenty of folks see Strickland as a good guy.

He also has a strong and unusual following for a Democrat. In 2006, Strickland topped former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in regions of Ohio that Dems typically fare poorly in: rural Ohio. Strickland’s conservative roots and former job as a Methodist minister make him popular in traditional GOP strongholds. And Strickland has remained tough on crime and supportive of gun enthusiasts, attracting votes that traditionally favor Republican Party candidates. During his time in office, he’s been reluctant to raise taxes to balance the budget. “That’s not been easy over the last couple of years because of the weak economy,” Green says. Meanwhile, billions in federal stimulus money for public works projects and highways will no doubt bolster Strickland’s union support.

“He seems to be holding together the kind of coalition that he had in 2006,” Green says. “Up to this point he seems to have a good strategy and seems to be implementing it pretty well.”

 

HOW KASICH WINS

Ride the throw-the-bums-out wave

The Rasmussen poll in August found that 43 percent of Ohioans approve of the job Strickland is doing as governor, while 54 percent disapprove. Republican political consultant Terry Casey calls that a terrible level of support for a politician whose key strength is that he’s seen as a highly likeable guy. President Obama’s sagging approval ratings also appear to hurt Strickland. Green says that if you look at other governors up for reelection nationwide, particularly Democratic ones, “There are plenty of them who are in huge trouble because of the weak economy.”

It seemed as if Kasich’s early strategy was to let Strickland’s record speak for itself. As Kasich has told voters during campaign stops, “He’s had his turn at bat, and he’s struck out.” Plus, Weaver, the Republican consultant, says Strickland’s campaign may have to spend a great deal of energy and money in the closing weeks to energize his unenthusiastic Democratic base. “It will be costly and they will be fighting a political headwind,” he says.

Weaver believes that because Strickland favored Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and not Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, in the primary race for U.S. Senate, the governor has alienated a large number of Democrats. “A lot of the most caffeinated Democrats may well sit on their hands and do little to help the governor with his campaign,” Weaver says. “Many, especially women, are still angry at him [Strickland] and at Lee Fisher.”

Go on the attack

Typically it’s the incumbent who employs a so-called Rose Garden strategy, doing his day-to-day job while letting the challenger do most of the public campaigning. This year, it’s been Kasich remaining under the radar of wider public scrutiny while Strickland has stayed more visible.

Kasich can be expected to go on the offensive soon, Casey says. But he doesn’t have to be mean about it, he adds. He can acknowledge Strickland is a nice but ineffective leader, hammering away at the unemployment rate and budget mess.

And while Strickland can try to pin Ohio’s economic turmoil on Bush and GOP legislators, those excuses sound less credible the longer Strickland and President Obama are in office. As Green says, “He did campaign four years ago on turning Ohio around.”

That’s a point Weaver says Kasich needs to emphasize strongly. “Where are the jobs he promised? Where is the complete change in the school funding system he promised? And where’s the most ethical administration in Ohio history he promised? These are questions Strickland can’t answer without setting off the B.S. alarm of Ohio voters who look beyond partisanship,” he says.

And Kasich might be able to score points by reminding voters about Strickland’s run-ins with Inspector General Tom Charles. In an April report, Charles accused Strickland’s Public Safety director Cathy Collins-Taylor of killing an Ohio Highway Patrol sting at the governor’s mansion to avoid embarrassing Strickland and then lying about it to IG investigators. The report spawned legislative hearings that led to Collins-Taylor losing her job and further detailed the smuggling of tobacco, liquor and other alleged contraband by inmates working at the mansion. When a new incident involving alcohol surfaced, Strickland shut the prison work-release program down.

Then in August, the governor faced more heat from the Inspector General. Charles claimed Strickland’s choice for executive director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission, Richard Murray, “abused his authority” by pushing for unions, which support Strickland, in landing building contracts for school districts.

Son of a postal worker

A big question for Kasich is this: Who defines him, the Democrats or the Republicans? So far, it seems as if Kasich has been unable to shake the shackles of Wall Street. His work for Lehman after leaving Congress continues to nag him, particularly since the firm’s collapse helped trigger the federal bailout of banks, new Wall Street oversight and federal stimulus spending. (Casey, however, thinks Strickland’s negative ads didn’t change the overall margin in most public opinion polls. “Now what do they do for the last two months?’’ he says. “Do they continue to attack Kasich, or return to ‘Ted’s a nice guy’? ”)

But Casey acknowledges that Kasich isn’t well-known around the state. “The real problem that the Kasich campaign has strategically is it needs to define the candidate, and needs to define the candidate in positive terms,” Green says. Kasich’s campaign has done a pretty good job, he adds, but the fact that name recognition is not high yet “suggests they have a lot more work to do.”

Meanwhile, campaign flubs and unflattering articles can fill the vacuum. The Other Paper, a sister publication of Columbus Monthly, featured a cover story titled, “Does Ohio need an SOB as governor?” highlighting anecdotes about Kasich’s browbeating run-ins with a teenage store clerk and others over the years. The article painted the Republican as a snobby elitist out of touch with the common Ohioan. Kasich denied the crass behavior, but the story was shared widely on the Internet and attracted letters from readers who described their own encounters with the candidate.

The Kasich campaign also was forced to apologize for a remark his press secretary, Rob Nichols, made about Strickland ignoring the plight of the state’s cities because the governor grew up in a “chicken shack on Duck Run.” Strickland himself has described living briefly in a chicken coop after a fire destroyed his parents’ home in Scioto County, but Nichols’s comment set off a firestorm of criticism.

Then in July, Kasich’s running mate for lieutenant governor, Auditor Mary Taylor, boasted at a campaign event that she advised tax clients to move to Florida or other states that don’t have high income taxes or an onerous death tax when she worked as a Certified Public Accountant for 16 years. The remark sparked a heated backlash. Democratic consultant Greg Haas, who helped run Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman’s campaign for governor in 2006, says, “It’s an insult to every Ohioan.”

To counter the tide of bad publicity, Kasich needs to craft his own narrative, reminding voters that he’s the son of a postal worker who was a Democrat. Kasich also would benefit from talking more about his work in the Ohio legislature (first elected at age 26) and in Congress for 18 years, cutting government spending and serving as chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee when the federal budget was balanced.

A lot can change quickly in politics. Who knows what revelations might rock either campaign over the next several weeks, particularly in a race that has such significant consequences. Whoever wins will be in charge of the state at a crucial time, figuring out how to try to slash that huge budget deficit and spark an economic recovery—and the next governor perhaps will control the Apportionment Board, which sets legislative districts for the next decade, and impact the 2012 presidential race since Ohio most likely will be a key state again.

“The race is very close right now. It’s been close all year . . . and there’s probably a pretty good probability it will stay very close,” says Green. “As we go into the fall, we may see some surprises. Each side is going to want to break this deadlock.”

Jon Craig is a Statehouse reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

This story appeared in the September 2010 issue of Columbus Monthly.