Ohio Democrats' Field Of Gubernational Candidates Finally Taking Shape

Mar 19, 2017

About a month ago, David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman, was more than a bit concerned.

Back then, he had no announced candidates for Ohio governor in 2018, while some rather well-known and well-funded Republicans were gearing up for a fight.

"The time to start organizing campaigns is now,'' Pepper told WVXU in February. "There is no time for exploratory committees and thinking about it. It is time to get on with it."

Well, ask and ye shall receive.

Since then, three Democrats have officially announced their intentions to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018; and there are probably more on the way.

The latest to jump in was former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery, who ran for state treasurer and lost in 2014, a year that was a train wreck for the Ohio Democratic Party.

Also in are Joe Schiavoni, the Ohio Senate minority leader from Boardman and Betty Sutton, a former congresswoman from Copley who had her congressional district "Republicanized" by the GOP legislation after the 2010 Census. She was matched up against Republican Jim Renacci, who won the seat and has held it ever since.

And, in a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Sutton and Renacci could end up banging heads again, since Renacci is clearly preparing to run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

But we get ahead of ourselves talking about potential match-ups. Way ahead.

There will like be at least one and maybe more Democrats jumping into the race.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is expected to announce any day now. Whaley has been rather popular in the Gem City, as witnessed by the fact that she is running for re-election as mayor this year without opposition. That is something that has not happened since Dayton changed its charter in 1969 to have separate elections of the mayor.

Whaley is likely to have an ally in Cincinnati in Mayor John Cranley, who is in his own fight this year for re-election. Cranley and Whaley are good friends and political allies. People close to Cranley tell WVXU that there is no doubt that Cranley – who had been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate himself  - will endorse her if she runs. And we're pretty sure she will. 

Then there is the Ohio Democrat who is stuck in limbo – former Ohio attorney general Rich Cordray.

For the past five years, Cordray has been director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created by the Dodd-Frank Act. He was appointed by President Obama; and he is credited with recovering billions of dollars for consumers from unscrupulous lenders.

And he has the undying enmity of many GOP members of Congress, who want to see him and his agency go.

But Cordray serves a term that lasts until mid-2018. There is a court case pending that would give the president the power to fire him, which Donald Trump would no doubt do. But Cordray's friends in Ohio say he won't leave early unless forced to – it is, for him, a matter of principle, they say.

Even though he would probably like to come back to Ohio and run for governor. If he did, he would automatically become the front-runner in a Democratic primary; and might even scare some other candidates into runs for down-ticket statewide offices.

But, as of now, there are three announced Democrats.

When Pillich announced her candidacy last week, the Republican Governors Association put out a press release with the headline Ohio Democrats turn to another retread loser for governor."

Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, believes the GOP underestimates the former state representative from Montgomery.

"She is very much in the mix; she has been working her tail off,'' Burke said. "No one works harder as a candidate than Connie. People need to take her seriously."

As a former state legislator who served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, Pillich has substance, Burke said.

Burke is one of those Democratic leaders who  expects Whaley to get into the race. Whaley and Pillich – and Sutton as well – would be competing for the same Democratic base of women voters.

"The fact that a majority of those running on the Democratic side are women is in and of itself amazing,'' Burke said. "And it is very encouraging."

Pillich told WVXU she believes she is a serious contender because she has the most money of any of the present Democratic candidates, with $425,000 in her campaign bank account as of Jan. 1. And, she says, she is the only one of the three announced Democratic candidates who has run statewide.

"When I ran for treasurer in 2014, I was the top vote-getter in the Democratic field,'' Pillich said.

This is true. But she still lost to Republican incumbent Josh Mandel by 13 percentage points in that disastrous year, when Democrats were swept in all the statewide constitutional offices.

Most Ohio Democrats blame the 2014 mess on the gubernatorial candidate, then-Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who bumbled and stumbled his way to the finish line, ending up 30 percentage points behind incumbent Republican John Kasich.

Right now, the Republican field appears to be Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and Renacci. 

If the Democratic field becomes too crowded, you might see candidates pairing up – one running for governor, and the other for lieutenant governor. Since 1978, the governor and lieutenant governor in Ohio have run as a team.

That's hard to imagine on the Republican side. Taylor is already lieutenant governor; and DeWine served as a U.S. Senator after a stint as George Voinovich's lieutenant governor.

Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University, said he could see gubernatorial candidate pairing up as a governor/lieutenant governor team, but only under certain circumstances.

"On the Republican side, there are none of those candidates likely to agree to be number two,'' Mariani said. "On the Democratic side, if the field grows and you have some more men running, you're not going to see a two-man team."

A team such as Whaley and Pillich "might be a good combination,'' Mariani said. "The Democratic Party is more female than ever."

After disastrous statewide elections in 2010 and 2014, can any Democrat win the governor's race in 2018?

Yes, of course they can. Or they could get their clocks cleaned again.

"The Democrats should have reason for optimism,'' Mariani said. "The national environment feels good for them right now.

"But there is a lot of uncertainty now; a lot of it will have to do with how the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress are perceived by the voters next year,'' Mariani said.

"One thing about politics in this new age,'' Mariani said, "is that nobody knows what the next day is going to bring."