Brunner and Fisher in, Ryan out: Ohio Dems face a crowded primary, and that could be a good thing

[Updated with news that Tim Ryan will not run.] Ohio Democrats were worried they might not get a single top-tier candidate to run for the Senate seat left open by retiring Senator George Voinovich. They got two in a single day: Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner are both set to announce their candidacies.

Within the same day, the third Democrat who was attracting the most Senate buzz also clarified his intentions: Rep. Tim Ryan is set to endorse the Lieutenant Governor, forgo a statewide campaign and announce that he is running for re-election in safely blue OH-17. As it is unlikely other prominent Democrats will choose to enter the race, this series of events leaves Brunner and Fisher locked in a two-way showdown.

The day got started by news that Brunner was about to release a candidacy statement; within a few hours, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Fisher had fired an e-mail to his associates announcing that he had made up his mind and that he would run as well. “Ironically, we learned at about 11 this morning that Jennifer Brunner is announcing for the Senate today,” said the e-mail. “So are we – later this afternoon!”

Fisher had set up an explanatory committee two weeks ago, and he was not expected to make an official declaration until later in the spring. It is thus possible that he was hurried into a public announcement when he heard about Brunner. In any case, today’s events set the tone for what should be a very tight primary since neither candidate can claim to have the upper-hand.

Fisher and Brunner are both high-profile Democrats, both were first elected to their current statewide office in 2006. (Fisher also served as the state Attorney General from 1990 to 1994 before losing his re-election race.) I have not been able to find much difference between their ideological positioning: Both have the reputation of loyal Democrats, closer to the party’s liberal wing than to its conservative one. Fisher will be endorsed by popular Governor Ted Strickland as early as tonight; but Brunner should be boosted by the name recognition she acquired in the run-up to the 2008 election, when she won applause from liberal groups for issuing a series of rulings seeking to facilitate access to the polls.

The good news for Democrats is that Fisher and Brunner would both make strong candidates in the general election, and there is no reason to think that one would be stronger than the other against presumptive Republican nominee Rob Portman. Recent polls show that both would perform similarly, with the slightest of edges for Fisher. (A Quinnipiac poll, for instance, showed him leading Portman by 15%; she “only” led by 10%.) Both have their weaknesses (while Fisher has less charisma and while he has lost statewide races before, Brunner is sure to have made herself enemies for her partisan role during the 2008 election) and their strength.

But is this good news not outweighed by the fact that Democrats now face the prospect of a bruising primary that will leave their nominee weakened for the general election?

I do not think so, and for a very simple reason: Ohio’s congressional primary will be held in May. That leaves plenty of time for the primary’s winner to mount a competitive run against Portman however bruising the primary will have been. (By contrast, Missouri’s primary is held in mid-August, a much tricking timing for the survival of the Blunt-Steelman showdown to navigate.)

As long as there is time for a nominee to mend his wounds, contested primaries are a good thing for a party. They allow for the party that is hosting a competitive contest to remain in the news and the winner typically gets a surge of support after his victory; on the other hand, a candidate who is running in an uncontested primary can easily fall out of the public eye.

This was obviously the case in the 2008 presidential election, as the prolonged primary helped Obama practice his general election arguments and allowed his campaign to lay the groundwork of general election runs in red states few Democrats had campaigned before. Senate races often follow a similar pattern. Last May, Kay Hagan’s primary victory gave her a dramatic boost in polls last May, in what was the first that she had a real chance of beating Dole. Similarly, Oregon’s and Montana’s contested primaries in 2006 and 2008 helped Jeff Merkley and Jon Tester introduce themselves to voters statewide.

(There are exceptions, of course. That Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson dominated the airwaves for months last year did not help the former catch up to Tom Udall once he became the Republican nominee. Yet, Udall’s easy victory had little to do with the fact that Wilson spent months attacking Pearce: the Democrat had wide leads in polls months before the GOP primary got heated.)

Also, Fisher and Brunner are both high-profile candidates, so neither should have difficulty raising money. If they were both unknown politicians, donors might wait to see who would emerge to take on the GOP; but they will be able to raise money on their own merits rather than as Portman’s prospective opponents.

In short: Unless the Fisher-Brunner showdown gets exceptionally nasty (and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it will), the winner will emerge with six months to go before the general election having put in place a strong infrastructure, gained a competitive edge and obtained a lot of media exposure.

More than the prospect of a competitive primary, what is worrisome for Democrats is that Brunner’s Senate run leaves the Secretary of State position open for the taking in 2010. That might seem minor in comparison to a Senate seat, but this down-the-ballot race will have two major implications:

    1. Redistricting: Democrats have a 3-2 edge on Ohio’s Apportionment Board, the panel that will control redistricting at the beginning of the next decade. Democrats are desperately looking to keep that edge in order to erase the GOP’s heavy gerrymandering. The Secretary of State is one of the board’s five members, so which party wins this open race could very well decide control of the Apportionment Board.
    2. The 2012 presidential race: We learned over the past three presidential elections how important Secretary of States can be: Florida’s Kathrine Harris and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell proved indispensable to  George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 victories, while Brunner’s rulings helped Democrats increase turnout in 2008. The winner of the 2010 open Secretary of State position will supervise Ohio’s presidential election in 2012, so could the stakes be any higher?

      While I have traditionally stayed away from state-level politics, we will definitely keep an eye on the race to succeed Brunner.

      2 Responses to “Brunner and Fisher in, Ryan out: Ohio Dems face a crowded primary, and that could be a good thing”

      1. 1 Mike in Maryland

        “Fisher and Brunner are both high-profile Democrats, both were first elected to statewide office in 2006″

        Actually, Lee Fisher was elected statewide as Ohio Attorney General in 1990, defeated for reelection in 1994, and then lost a competitive race for governor in 1998 (to Bob Taft; I bet there are a lot of Ohioans now who wish Fisher had won that race.)

      2. 2 Taniel

        Thanks Mike, I remembered that Fisher had lost statewide races before, but I had forgotten that he had won one in 1990 (so long ago!) I corrected my post.

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