Divvying Up Ohio

A gift of wine for that special event
This column was written by David J. Sirota.
If elections are ugly things, primary elections are downright hideous, especially on the Democratic side. Ronald Reagan's famous Eleventh Commandment — paraphrased as, "Thou shalt not speak badly of a fellow party member" — is rarely respected, no matter how much it is publicly venerated.

Few argue that these primaries weaken a party's ability to ultimately win the seats it is aiming for. Primary candidates spend months publicly beating one another up and spending money that should otherwise be hoarded for use against the other party. Meanwhile, incumbents rise above it all, using their public office to run a Rose Garden-like campaign, stressing their credentials as statesmen above the odious partisan sniping taking place on the other side of the aisle.

Already in the 2006 election cycle, Democrats face two potentially nasty primaries in eminently winnable U.S. Senate races. In Montana, state Senate President Jon Tester and state Auditor John Morrison are both running to replace Republican Senator Conrad Burns, who has been damaged by his connections to, among others, scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matt Brown and former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse are facing off for the right to challenge Senator Lincoln Chafee, a vulnerable Republican incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Now, a third primary could take place in another battleground state: Ohio. Over the course of the last week, the state has gone from having no one to run against Senator Mike DeWine to potentially having two top Democrats square off for the chance to challenge the pathetically weak incumbent (DeWine received a 42-percent approval rating from Ohio voters in a recent poll).

One candidate is Paul Hackett, the Iraq War veteran who came within a hair of winning a staunchly Republican congressional district in a Cincinnati special election earlier this year. The other is Congressman Sherrod Brown, a former statewide elected official who now represents the Akron area in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The potential matchup may strike some as strange, considering Hackett and Brown's close relationship. It was Brown, after all, whose "Grow Ohio" project helped Hackett raise about a half-million dollars in Hackett's special-election race. But Brown and Hackett gearing up for the same race is, in reality, inadvertent. Brown originally said he would not run for the Senate because of various unexpected family concerns. But last week he reversed himself at almost exactly the same time Hackett was planning to announce he would run in Brown's place. It was a true case of bad timing.

That leaves both candidates and the Democratic Party with a simple question of what to do. It is safe to assume no one on the Democratic side wants to see two promising candidates destroy each other in a primary in a state that is not easy for Democrats to win in any event, especially against a well-funded GOP incumbent. So who is the better candidate for the Senate race, and what is the best that Democrats can hope for?

To figure this out, we can analyze the major challenges faced by any Democratic candidate in this race and then see which of the two candidates is better equipped to deal with those challenges.

General Fund Raising
The first obstacle for any candidate is money, especially in a large, multimedia-market state like Ohio. Brown currently has more than $2 million in cash on hand, having smartly spent the last years in Congress building a war chest for a bigger statewide race. Brown's foresight is not without precedent; Chuck Schumer did exactly the same thing as a New York congressman, patiently raising money for years as a safe-seat House member in order to have the huge resources needed to successfully run for the Senate in his (also large) state.

Hackett is no slouch, though. As a first-time candidate in 2005, he raised more than $1 million for a congressional race no one thought he had a chance to win because the district is so Republican. Much of Hackett's resources came from a stellar national Internet fund-raising operation, showing that Hackett clearly knows how to navigate and ride the technological wave fueling today's Democratic politics.