A few weeks ago, the 2014 Ohio gubernatorial race looked like a fairly simple affair.
John Kasich, the incumbent Republican, was set to face off in the fall with a Democrat, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.
The conventional wisdom was that Kasich was the favorite for re-election, although there was polling out there that suggested that FitzGerald – still a relative unknown outside of northeast Ohio – was within striking distance.
A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters in November had FitzGerald seven percentage points behind Kasich – a considerable improvement over a June Quinnipiac poll which had Kasich up by 14 percentage points.
But, polls aside, it was just the way both the Ohio Republican and Democratic parties like it – a clean, straightforward election, with no nasty intramural primary fights to drain away money and energy and, possibly, leave the winners bloody and battered for the fall campaign.
Well, maybe not.
For a time, there was the distinct possibility that both Kasich and FitzGerald could have to deal with challengers in the primary – both of the upstarts coming from southwest Ohio. Now, it seems only FitzGerald might face a primary battle.
Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune is threatening to take on FitzGerald, who has the endorsement of the Ohio Democratic Party and just about every prominent Democrat in the state.
Ted Stevenot, from Clermont County’s Union Township, and a long-time tea party activist who is former president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, an umbrella organization for tea party organizations around the state, had filed papers designating a campaign treasurer and was to announce his candidacy in Columbus Tuesday.
But Saturday, Stevenot put out a statement saying he would not run.
"I (withdraw from the race) reluctantly because part of what has gone wrong with our political process is that the two major parties have made it exceedingly difficult for a common person to run for office,'' said Stevenot, who runs an insurance business in Clermont County.
Still, the fact that there was a potential challenge to Kasich from the right showed that there is some dissatisfaction with Kasich among Ohio conservatives.
Kasich is off the hook.
Back in 2010 (seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?), tea party activists were pretty enthusiastic about Kasich when he was running against incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland; and Kasich went well out of his way to court their support.
Then, last year, Kasich bypassed his fellow Republicans in the legislature to use the State Controlling Board to buy into the expansion of Medicaid under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
This delighted a lot of Ohio Democrats; made a lot of mainstream Republicans unhappy; and caused the tea party movement in Ohio to blow its stack.
The Portune situation is more difficult to figure out.
FitzGerald has been actively campaigning – and racking up endorsements – for nearly a year. Jumping into a statewide race only a few months before it occurs is a rather daunting task, but that is what Portune is proposing to do.
Things have been rather rocky for FitzGerald lately. In November, he named State Sen. Eric Kearney of North Avondale as his lieutenant governor running mate. It looked like a smart move at the time – Kearney’s a smart, savvy legislator with considerable appeal to voters in Hamilton County – particularly among African-Americans, who had been cool to FitzGerald’s candidacy.
Then the news stories began bubbling up about the nearly $750,000 in federal and state taxes owed by Kearney’s publishing business; and Kearney was forced to drop out.
This apparently threw gasoline on the fire; and the next thing you know, Portune – a friend of Kearney – is talking about running against Fitzgerald in the primary.
Last Monday, Portune went to Integrity Hall in Bond Hill and announced that he was filing paperwork to designate a campaign treasurer and forming an “exploratory committee.” He stopped short of announcing his candidacy, saying he would test the waters around the state and make a decision – obviously before the Feb. 5 filing deadline.
Integrity Hall was no accident – it is owned by long-time political activist Steve Reece, a man of considerable influence in the African-American community. He had three carloads of friends from Cleveland come down for the announcement.
The Hamilton County Democratic political establishment stayed away from Portune’s event. The county party has already endorsed FitzGerald; and as Caleb Faux, the executive director of the county party said on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition Thursday, has no plans to change its mind.
In fact, as Portune was speaking Monday, two Democratic Cincinnati council members, Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld, were sending out tweets saying that they were sticking with FitzGerald.
It’s hard to imagine running a statewide campaign from scratch without the backing of your home county’s party organization.
Mark Weaver, a long-time Republican political consultant, said Friday that he didn't expect either Stevenot or Portune to file.
“Even if you file as a candidate, in order to make an impact you have to have an organization,’’ Weaver said. Portune - who has spent over 20 years in office as a Cincinnati council member and county commissioner - doesn’t even have the backing of his county party.
Portune, Weaver said, will have an uphill battle.
But he could give the party-endorsed candidates severe headaches. And that is the last thing Ed FitzGerald needs right now.