With Richard Cordray formally announcing his entrance into the Ohio governor’s race Tuesday, the Democratic field appears set. And with Democratic voters energized against President Donald Trump, they have high hopes of capturing the governor’s mansion.
Cordray, 58, was in his native Grove City to kick off a “kitchen table” campaign in which he intends to highlight Ohioans’ economic insecurities and ways to address them. He joins four others who already have been vetted by the Ohio Democratic Party to vie for the governor’s mansion.
But to win in November 2018, the Democrats will have to buck decades of history in the Buckeye State.
Only one Democrat has been elected governor since 1986: Ted Strickland, who won in a Democratic wave in 2006. In the most recent gubernatorial election, Democratic candidate Ed FitzGerald’s disastrous candidacy netted him just 33 percent of the vote.
Some former heads of the Ohio Democratic Party believe, however, that 2019 could start with a Democrat in the governor’s office.
That was when then-President George W. Bush was mired in an unpopular war and had just made an unpopular, unsuccessful attempt to privatize Social Security. Even worse for the Ohio GOP, Gov. Bob Taft was convicted of criminal ethics violations in what Democrats insisted was a “culture of corruption” sparked by dubious state investments in a GOP leader’s coin business.
But Leland, who’s supporting Cordray, said it’s also part of a larger trend since 1956 in which Ohio has elected governors of the same party as the president on only three occasions.
Cordray, the former director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, released a video on Tuesday featuring former President Barack Obama that Cordray said he was using with Obama’s permission. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, also appears in the video, which has past statements from both Democrats lauding Cordray’s service with the consumer agency.
And Cordray strongly implied that he is the national Democratic Party’s choice to try to win the governor’s office in 2018.
“We’re going to be getting a lot of help nationally,” Cordray said.
But that doesn’t make him the presumptive nominee, said James Ruvolo, who was the Ohio Democratic Party chairman from 1983 to 1991. Cordray has a higher public profile in Washington, D.C., and Columbus than the other candidates, but not in the rest of Ohio, said Ruvolo, who is supporting Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
In addition to Whaley, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and former state Rep. Connie Pillich are in the race for the Democratic nomination.
In a debate Monday night, Whaley pointed out that the team of apparent Republican frontrunners — Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted — has a combined 60 years of experience.
Ruvolo said that longevity could be a negative for DeWine, who might get the blame for some of Gov. John Kasich’s tenure, such as the state’s relatively slow job growth.
“I think there’s a lot to hang around DeWine’s neck,” Ruvolo said.
If Ohio Democrats are to be successful next year, they have to focus not just on who’s running for governor, but on the entire ticket, said Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
He said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has proved himself to be a strong candidate, but Cordray still must.
Cordray’s work at the consumer-protection bureau, which returned almost $12 billion to consumers from big banks and other financial institutions, could appeal “not only to Democrats, but also to people who voted for Trump.” But the cerebral Cordray must show that he can connect with people to effectively tell that story, Asher said.
Republicans’ fear that he might succeed in that was shown by the fierce, multi-pronged attack that the party launched against Cordray on Tuesday, Asher said.
“One reason the Republicans are piling on so heavily now is they know he’s a very qualified candidate,” Asher said.
The man in the White House is another reason, Ruvolo said.
“The Republicans are expecting to be on the defensive next year because of (President Donald) Trump,” he said. “I expect it to be nasty. Really nasty.”