Cennamology Chief Editor
After losing the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats are optimistic about their chances at taking it back in 2016. One of the states where they think they have a chance at a pickup is Ohio, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman will be up for reelection.
Over 18 months before the election, Democrats in Ohio already have two strong candidates in what will likely be an uphill battle against a popular incumbent. However, while having multiple strong candidates from the same party for a single office was once viewed as a strength, Ohio Democrats are viewing this situation as a liability.
The first of the two Democrats to throw his hat in the ring is Cincinnati city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, a 30-year-old Princeton graduate who was first elected to public office at the age of 27. The other is Ted Strickland, the 73-year-old former Congressman and one-term governor with several decades of political experience who narrowly lost reelection in 2010.
However, the logic behind sidelining Sittenfeld has to do with more than just age. The ultimate goal is to give Strickland the opportunity to stockpile money for the general election against Portman without having to spend any in a lengthy primary.
The obvious problem with this is that the Ohio Democratic Party is trying to crown Strickland the nominee over a year before a single vote is cast. In a true Democracy, party bosses are not the people who are supposed to choose the nominee, the voters are.
This phenomenon of party leaders doing everything they can to avoid primaries where there is no incumbent or the incumbent is of the other party is fairly new and only really became a trend in the past couple election cycles. This is most likely another side effect of the disastrous Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court case from 2010, which eviscerated all corporate donation limits.
Citizens United is likely responsible for this trend because the purpose of avoiding a crowded primary is to allow the nominee to save up money for the general election. Since there are virtually no limits on campaign donations, candidates have to begin fundraising long before the election, and a primary is seen as a roadblock before the general election that only leads to the eventual nominee blowing all of his or her money before the general election begins.
While it is usually true that candidates who had to endure a primary start the general more cash-strapped than an opponent who did not have one, this does not necessarily mean that they are less likely to win. In fact, it means that they are more likely to be stronger candidates. There are several examples of Senate races last cycle where candidates who emerged from competitive primaries took down opponents who were crowned the nominee without any input from voters.
The 2014 Iowa Senate race is one example of this. Iowa Democrats did everything they could to make sure that then-Rep. Bruce Braley was the only candidate on the primary ballot. Republicans, on the other hand, had a crowded field of (at the time) little-known candidates. The one that eventually emerged, with a larger primary victory than most expected, was a state senator named Joni Ernst, the candidate who ran an ad for the primary about castrating hogs and cutting pork that received national attention. Ernst's exposure she gained from the ad, along with the help of a few gaffes from an untested Braley, led to her 52-44% victory.
Joni Ernst would most likely not have been able to drop the "state" from State Sen. Ernst had the Iowa Republican Party successfully attempted to prevent anyone from challenging her in the primary. Without a Republican primary in the 2014 Senate race, Ernst would not have run the hog castration ad that introduced herself to primary voters and would have entered the general election as an unknown even more unprepared than Braley was. The national profile Ernst gained from the primary ad also boosted her fundraising prowess, as donors began to view her as a very serious candidate.
On the other hand, had Braley had to win a contested primary before facing Ernst in the general, he may be a senator now. Had Braley been given the opportunity to prove himself in a primary against an equally serious challenger, he would have been more cautious on the campaign trail from the beginning, and perhaps would have avoided his infamous "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" gaffe that was replayed several times throughout the campaign. Primaries are supposed to get candidates prepared for the general, and the lack of one made Braley woefully unprepared compared to Ernst.
One of the Democrats' major recruitment failures of 2014 was the South Dakota Senate race, with former majority leader Tom Daschle and then-majority leader Harry Reid each having their own preferred candidate. Reid's candidate, former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Daschle's candidate, eventual nominee Rick Weiland, would have been a perfect primary match-up between the centrist Herseth and the progressive Weiland. However, instead of giving South Dakota Democrats a chance to choose which candidate's ideology they wanted to represent them in the general, headbutting between Reid and Daschle led to Herseth taking a pass on the race. The eventual winner, current Sen. Mike Rounds, ended up running a lackluster campaign, but still won because Weiland was unable to get support from a unified party as the Democrats who preferred Herseth felt betrayed by the national party for pushing her out.
Along with these two races, the other 2014 Senate elections (that were contested by both parties) where the Democratic nominee did not have a tight primary included Kentucky, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi, and West Virginia. If you include Democratic incumbents running for reelection, this list extends to include Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina, and Louisiana. The only one of those races where the Democrat won was Michigan, where now-Sen. Gary Peters ran against a Republican nominee who also did not have to endure a primary.
Unfortunately, national Democrats have apparently not learned their lesson from these 2014 races and are still married to the delusion that avoiding a primary somehow improves their chances at winning the general election. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an organization that has avoided endorsing in tightly contested primaries in previous election cycles, has already started running ads for Ted Strickland. Luckily, Sittenfeld is sticking to his guns despite the establishment doing everything they can to persuade him to drop out.
This trend is affecting more than just Ohio in 2016, and despite having a few exceptions like the Maryland Senate race, the practice of avoiding a costly primary appears to be manifesting in the presidential election. While the Republicans have more potential candidates than Saturday Night Live has cast members to play them, the Democrats seem to have already crowned Hillary Clinton as their nominee. Never in the two-party system has this every happened in American politics. Clinton is set to not only make history as the first female presidential nominee of a major U.S. party, but also the first non-incumbent to win the nomination without serious opposition. Democrats across the country who want a choice are already feeling alienated, and unless someone steps up to the table to give Clinton a real fight, these Democrats will stay home on election day hurting not just Clinton but down-ballot candidates as well.
Ohio Democrats deserve to have a real choice between Strickland and Sittenfeld. When the voters have more choices, they are less likely to be apathetic towards the political system and are more likely to have a candidate that they identify with. A common criticism of electoral politics is that it only provides voters with two choices that are more often than not too similar in ideologies. Primaries exist to change that. It is easy for voters to not like any of the candidates when there are only one from each party, but when there are three, or five, or seven, or ten, voters are much more likely to like at least one of them.