Campaign Politics: Will 2018 repeat 2006? Part III

By John Corrigan


(BOWLING GREEN) Betty Montgomery started 2005 with high hopes to succeed her friend Bob Taft as Ohio’s Governor. She would end 2006 out of work, having dropped out of the Governor’s race and was defeated for re-election as Attorney General by Youngstown’s Marc Dann.  Jim Petro started 2005 with a plan to make the GOP 2006 primary a two-candidate race between himself and Ken Blackwell, which he succeeded in doing, by knocking Montgomery out of the race. He succeeded, but underestimated the conservative juggernaut that was Ken Blackwell. Both men ended 2006 by joining Montgomery in the unemployment line, while Republican Mary Taylor and Democrat Jennifer Brunner ordered new carpeting for their respective offices.


Blackwell dominated the issues of the race by concentrating on culture and social issues, both Petro and Montgomery’s weakness.  No matter how hard Montgomery and Petro tried on the trail to make the race about education or the economy, Blackwell had marshalled the forces of social conservatism, and shaped the debate. Social conservatives were the voters that all the GOP candidates were chasing, due in large part to their role in the successful 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush, and Blackwell earned the lion’s share of votes and organizational support from that voting bloc long before the race started in 2005.


With polls showing all three in a close primary race, but with Blackwell consistently leading, Montgomery and Petro contemplated a strategy that would force the race to become a two-person race.  Petro’s Rex Elsass struck first.  Jim Petro, who had been pro-choice and gay friendly as a public official, cut an ad in late 2005 featuring a wedding cake with the cake topper showing a man and woman on top, that embraced fully the pro-life, pro-family, pro-traditional values of the target audience of voters.  Petro’s goal was not to win with the ad, but to place it in enough rotation to saturate the airwaves very early and force a change in the public opinion polls. The ad did just that, and it was designed to push Montgomery from the race. 


Petro broke out of the pack to become Blackwell’s main challenger. Montgomery blinked, bedeviled by flagging fundraising and trying to assess her future. Despite a strong team and time on her side, she relented and chose to run for re-election as Attorney General. 


The down ticket races featured new candidates. The Auditor’s race was settled early with State Representative Mary Taylor (R-Green), a CPA with a conservative voting record, and backed by powerhouse GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff and Doug Preisse in Summit and Franklin Counties respectively, earning the honors of no primary challenger for the position. A natural on the campaign trailer with a solid fundraising apparatus, Taylor would go on to earn the only statewide win for the GOP, a narrow victory over Democrat State Representative Barbara Sykes (D-Akron), whose own missteps on the campaign trail seemed to give Taylor an edge.   


For Attorney General, Montgomery sparred with State Senator Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland), the opportunistic firebrand whose ability to earn media as a legislator was keen. Grendell had entered the race after a legislative career of populist conservative appeal. Grendell’s representation of Cleveland's real estate magnets helped in early fundraising. Once Montgomery entered the race, he persevered, only to be dispatched handily by the incumbent, even though ORP Chairman Bob Bennett’s team squeezed Grendell to drop out. Grendell went down on primary election day.  Montgomery did too, losing a bitter race to Mark Dann, marked by ads that emanated from the Governor’s race that ultimately helped sink Montgomery. 


Blackwell’s position as Secretary of State saw Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann nominated by Republicans. Favored by monied interests in Cincinnati, Hartmann was initially opposed by term-limited State Representative Jim Trakas (R-Independence). Bennett convinced Trakas, a former county chairman with a close personal friendship, to drop from the race for the sake of party unity. Hartmann was not able to translate his Cincinnati relationships statewide as funds dried up for the down ticket race, and he was defeated by Jennifer Brunner of Columbus in the Fall. 


Incumbent State Treasurer Jeanette Bradley, Taft’s running mate, entered 2006 as an appointed incumbent, but flagged on the campaign trail.  Her moderate views, connection to Taft, and lack of strong African-American Republican voting bloc did not help her as she faced conservative gadfly Sandy O’Brien, the Ashtabula County Treasurer.  Bradley ran a lackluster campaign, and was defeated by O’Brien in the May primary by a narrow margin. 


Bradley was counseled to hang on to her money and let the party apparatus earn her the victory. She never got there and sat on a large war chest in defeat.  O’Brien was promised nothing and received nothing in return for being the nominee. GOP money had dried up after the divisive Governor primary, and O’Brien did receive a mention on the party’s slate card and materials for use in county fairs.  Seriously. She was destroyed by Richard Cordray in the Fall. 


2006 also saw Ohio’s popular Senior U.S. Senator, Mike DeWine fall to Congressmen Sherrod Brown (D-Avon).  Brown ran the national tide to swamp the two-term incumbent by tying DeWine to President George W. Bush. DeWine ran a strong campaign and worked hard, outraising Brown and spending wisely on television and grassroots politics. It was to no avail, as Brown rode a tide of voter anger to the Senate, where his Democratic Party would take a majority in the 110th Congress. DeWine, thinking his career was over, went back to Cedarville to assess his future, and devoted time to his family and charitable causes. His comeback in 2010 for Ohio Attorney General was a key component to the GOP’s ability to field a strong ticket that year under the leadership of Chairman Kevin DeWine. 


According to expert political observer Rex Elsass, “It takes years to build something and it can be destroyed in months.  If you aren't going to have strong leadership and a clear vision that allows you to recruit the right candidates and raise money, you minimize our ability to succeed.  It comes down to a clear message. The one thing people knew about Ted Strickland when he ran against John Kasich is that he lost 400,000 jobs and created an 8-billion-dollar debt.” 


Elsass continued, “The same is true as we move to the next election.  Two bullet points, they get to decide, or we get to decide.   We get to decide when we have unity and have concern about the same things. A Trump mid-term election isn't what I fear.  What I fear are people who haven't raised money -- who don't have a clear message and lose track of their priorities from the top of ticket to the bottom of ticket.”


With Montgomery running for Attorney General, Blackwell and Petro squared off for the right to face U.S. Representative Ted Strickland in the Fall.  The race featured negative attacks by third party groups in support of both of the candidates.  Petro argued that he would be the strongest candidate against Strickland based on his Cuyahoga County base and voter appeal to moderate Ohioans. Petro outlined policy initiatives on criminal justice, education, the economy, higher education, and built coalitions around those issues. 


Joy Padgett, the last-minute choice for Lt. Governor by Petro, was a spark plug on the campaign trail. She rallied her base, rural and female voters to the Petro ticket.  She excelled on the campaign trail, and was an active running mate. She did not bring extensive financial resources, as Petro’s first running mate, Hamilton County’s Commissioner Phil Heimlich had been enlisted to provide, but she did her job attacking Blackwell and promoting Petro. 


Blackwell played the primary like a Stradivarius.  He commanded the issues that pushed voters.  Defending traditional marriage and a strong pro-life and pro-family agenda.  He offered a conservative fiscal approach, including an Amendment to the State Constitution to limit spending as well as tax cut plans. Blackwell checked all the boxes of conservatives, and the conservative movement rallied around him.


His choice of running mate, while unconventional, was brilliantly executed. The Cincinnatian chose State Representative Tom Raga (R-Deerfield Twp.) from Warren County, adjacent to Blackwell’s native Hamilton.  Usually, a candidate seeks geographical, gender, racial, or philosophical balance on the ticket. Blackwell doubled down on Southwest Ohio voting blocs, and it paid off for him handsomely in the primary. 


With Raga, came the support of Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering) who enjoyed a very strong Dayton based organization. The Southwest Ohio corridor, rich with votes, overwhelmingly backed Blackwell in the primary.  Petro’s Cuyahoga County and Padgett’s rural Ohio voters could not match the massive turnout in Southwest Ohio among conservative and regional voters.   


This same dynamic may come into play in the 2018 GOP Governor’s primary with the freshly announced DeWine-Husted ticket.


The morning after the primary, Strickland’s polling showed that a weaker Republican had emerged from the race, although no Republican led during any public or private polling during the 2006 election. The weight of Bush and Taft, a divisive primary, and the burden of trying to keep the Governor’s Office in the hands of the same party for more than 16 years proved too much for Blackwell.   


With a lead also came institutional money, and Strickland opened up a wide and early lead in fundraising that he would not relinquish. Blackwell limped into the Fall campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He was never able to catch up. Strickland’s consensus as the Democratic nominee allowed him to build his organization and his fundraising giving him a 9-month head start to the General Election.  The polls never saw the race get closer than 10 points, and Blackwell was defeated by the largest margin of any Republican in the past 50 years. 


Ted Strickland succeeded Bob Taft in a solemn Statehouse ceremony. The seeds of his victory were planted in 2005 when Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman was persuaded to leave the Democratic nomination to him, while Blackwell had to fight and scratch to win a nomination, only to emerge in debt and deeply wounded from ideological and personality infighting. 


A united Democratic Party swept to great victories in November of 2006. A strong national trend, a hopelessly divided and scandal plagued Republican Party, unpopular Republican leaders at the helm of both the nation and state, and a party nominee with no money to tell his story all contributed to 2006 as a major Democratic triumph. The Democrats were that good in 2006 and the Republicans, that bad. 


Little mentioned, but of note is the hubris of the 2006 Republicans. Controlling everything one year, they fell out of favor the following, and two years later, lost their hard-fought House majority in Ohio.  Scandals, internal sniping, sabotage, arrogance of power all contributed to their fall.  Strickland and the Democratic Party caught magic in a bottle with the strong national tides of 2006 and 2008, then squandered them to a united GOP in 2010.  


The move this week to marry the campaigns of Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted is a nod to this history, with the politically sophisticated elected officials understanding the damage that hotly contested, and very expensive primaries can do. The lessons of 2006 are not lost on some within the Republican Party, even as the 2018 Democrats face a messy primary with big names like Cordray and Kucinich jumping into the race late with candidates who have been campaigning for the better part of a year; Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, State Sentor Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman), former U.S. Representative Betty Sutton (D-16), and former State Representative Connie Pillich (D- Montgomery).  


Gee, does that sounds familiar? History has a habit of repeating itself, and in a bipartisan manner.


Part I and II of the series is found below.

Part I: Will 2018 repeat 2006?

Part II: Deja Vu