Democrats say governor’s race not over

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Democrats say governor’s race not over

2014 Election coverage

Our local reporters and Columbus and Washington bureaus will have complete coverage of the 2014 elections all year. Ohioans will decide races for governor and statewide offices this year as well as state House, Senate and county offices. Follow us on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics.

Democrat Ed FitzGerald has self-inflicted so many wounds on the campaign trail that Republicans are predicting a landslide loss to incumbent Gov. John Kasich and a GOP sweep of the other statewide races this fall.

Not so fast, say Democrats and even some independent observers. Voters can be unpredictable, which explains why Kasich has launched a major TV ad blitz 87 days before Election Day.

“It’s tough. I’m not trying to minimize the challenge,” said Ted Strickland, a Democrat who lost the governor’s office to Kasich in 2010. “It is a big state with a lot of media markets. But I don’t think this race is over.”

Even so, with the week FitzGerald had, Democrats may start lining up to quietly pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.

FitzGerald just came off a brutal 10 days of bad headlines: poll numbers show him trailing Kasich by 12 points among registered voters; police caught him in his car parked at 4:30 a.m. in a secluded lot with a woman who is not his wife; he drove for several years without a valid Ohio driver’s license and carried a learner’s permit for years; and he tried to say he’s a family man by disclosing his son’s cancer diagnosis, which some saw as shameful exploitation.

“It’s like his entire campaign is operating on a learner’s permit. I don’t get it. It’s baffling,” said Mary Anne Sharkey, a former political reporter, top aide to Republican Bob Taft and campaign consultant.

Sharkey said FitzGerald’s first mistake was to hire a campaign team populated largely by operatives from outside Ohio, who then failed to vet FitzGerald so that all his vulnerabilities are known.

The vetting on FitzGerald’s first running mate, state Sen. Eric Kearney, D-Cincinnati, wasn’t too hot either. Kearney withdrew from the ticket after media reports that he and his wife owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes and penalties associated with their small business.

This week, FitzGerald stumbled again. He batted away media questions for an hour about the 4:30 a.m. traffic stop and insisted that nothing inappropriate was going on. He was a designated driver for a group visiting from Ireland and they got lost and stopped to get their bearings, he says. Yet, questions remain unanswered. Who else was in the party? Why did he end up with just a woman in his car? Why did he park in a secluded lot instead of a well-lit gas station?

Also last week, it came out that FitzGerald let his Ohio driver’s license expire in 2002 and drove for years without a license and later with a learner’s permit. FitzGerald is a former FBI agent and a licensed attorney. Why didn’t he just go to the BMV and get a proper license like millions of law-abiding Ohioans do?

Sharkey said if she were advising FitzGerald, she would have him visit every newspaper editorial board across the state and have him answer questions until reporters run out of them.

FitzGerald brings assets to any campaign, including an impressive resume that includes stints as an FBI agent, prosecutor, mayor and his current job as the Cuyahoga County executive. He has roots in the Democrat-rich Cleveland area and seemed poised to take on an incumbent made vulnerable by a disastrous confrontation with public employee unions in 2011, which resulted in the repeal of the Kasich-led anti-union Senate Bill 5.

But FitzGerald had long odds to overcome even before reporters started asking him why a police officer was tapping on his car window at 4:30 a.m. or why he drove without a valid driver’s license for so long.

He has just $2.44 million in campaign cash compared with Kasich’s $11.4 million bankroll. Sixty-five percent of Ohio voters, including 55 percent of those in his hometown area, don’t know who he is, according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University.

Even if FitzGerald is able to manage this crisis, he still faces a serious money problem. The bigger gap there is in the poll numbers, the harder it is to get donors to write checks — which can be a vicious cycle.

His hopes of attracting cash from national groups are dwindling.

“I think the difficulty with fundraising is a big issue,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. The Democratic National Committee and other national groups are very calculating about where to deploy precious resources and there is fierce competition to draw national money into close gubernatorial races across the country, she said.

“By every standard political measuring stick, the FitzGerald campaign has fallen short,” said Republican campaign strategist Mark Weaver. “There is no more time to get traction.” His advice to FitzGerald: “Time to update his LinkedIn profile.”

Weaver said FitzGerald could be heading to “Rob Burch territory” — a reference to the Democrat who got the lowest percentage of votes in the history of Ohio gubernatorial elections. In 1994, Burch garnered just 24.98 percent of the vote and Republicans swept into control of state government.

But Sharkey said diehard Democrats, union households and public employees are still mad at Kasich over Senate Bill 5, and that anger alone will put FitzGerald above 30 percent.

Where he gets the other 20 percent is not clear, even in a state that twice backed Barack Obama for president.

“I would say it is very slim at this point,” Sharkey said of his chances. “But you never say never in a campaign.”

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