Democrats look beyond Ohio for Senate hopes

As Strickland falters, spending is targeted at other races.

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Hot Senate races

A number of Senate races are still in play nationally, though these are the races that are on most experts’ radar. Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics recently placed Ohio’s Portman-Strickland race in the “leans Republican” category. Here is Sabato’s Crystal Ball for some other Senate races. The incumbent is listed in parenthesis:

Florida (Rubio, R) - Leans Republican

Illinois (Kirk, R) - Likely Democrat

Indiana (Coats, R) - Leans Democrat

New Hampshire (Ayotte, R) - Leans Democrat

North Carolina (Burr, R) - Leans Republican

Pennsylvania (Toomey, R) - Leans Democrat

Wisconsin (Johnson, R) - Likely Democrat

Nevada (Reid, D*) - Toss-up

* Retiring

Source: Sabato’s Crystal Ball

Ted Strickland once was thought to be a prized recruit for Democrats hoping to win back the Senate in November. Any list of potential Democratic Senate victors had Strickland’s name in it.

But now, as he sinks in poll after poll, the former Ohio governor seems like a more improbable victor by the day. Republican Sen. Rob Portman has dwarfed Strickland in fund-raising, picked up endorsements even from some union groups and unleashed a vigorous ground game that is churning out constant messaging about the candidate's strengths and his opponent's weaknesses.

Strickland's latest setback came Tuesday when the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aimed at electing Democrats to the Senate, announced it was pulling $3 million in advertising from that race from Sept. 20 through Oct. 10.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Democratic consultant Jim Manley. “But this is looking a little dicey right now.”

The question is, if it stays dicey can Democrats still recapture the Senate?

A lot can still happen between now and November, but even without Strickland the odds favor the Democrats, particularly if Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump and wins the presidency. If the 100-member Senate is deadlocked 50-50, the vice-president breaks any ties.

Democrats also have a mathematical advantage: 24 seats currently held by Republicans are up for election compared to 10 for Democrats. Trump could also be a factor in some races in traditional blue states such as in Illinois, where Rep. Sen. Mark Kirk withdrew an endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee and says he does not support him for president.

‘Uneven candidate’

Strickland’s performance has confounded even some political experts. “On paper this should have turned out differently,” said Nathan Gonzales of the D.C.-based Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

Although experts credit Portman with running a strong campaign, Strickland may have dug a hole himself by relying too much on the Ohio Democratic Party and national groups to establish his ground operation.

“Strickland can be a very uneven candidate,” said Jennifer Duffy of the D.C.-based Cook Political Report.

In politics money talks and the difference in spending can be seen virtually every time you turn on the television.

Outside groups backing Portman have pounded Strickland with critical ads that he’s been hard-pressed to counter. One Republican strategist, noting that Democrats have slowly pulled funding from the race rather than abandoning it altogether, joked that it looks as if they are “politically water-boarding him.”

Gonzales said Strickland was a victim of his own high expectations. Democrats quickly rallied to him over Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld in the primary, and a leaked memo by two Strickland allies indicated Strickland needed to raise $2 million in the first three months of 2015 and $2.5 million in the second quarter in order to raise $20 million by the 2016 election. As of the end of this June Strickland had just $3.8 million in the bank. Portman had $13.3 million.

“I just think there were early signs that there was rust on his campaign,” Gonzales said of Strickland. “It never came together.”

‘They can still win the Senate’

For Democrats, however, the sting of a Strickland defeat would be smoothed over by victories elsewhere, and if Clinton wins they need a net gain of just four seats to win the majority.

“They can still win the Senate without Ohio,” said Duffy.

It could be close because there is little drama in a majority of the Senate races. Democrats appear to be well-positioned in Illinois, where Kirk is trailing in polls, and Wisconsin, where incumbent Ron Johnson is in a tough fight. Democrat Evan Bayh is currently ahead in Indiana, and three Republican incumbents — Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Richard Burr in North Carolina and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire —are in tight races at the moment. Former presidential candidates like John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida appear to be pulling ahead in their races.

“No state is a must-win,” said Gonzales. “But Ohio not being as competitive puts pressure on the other states that are in play.”

For his part, Strickland remains hopeful, sending out a statement Tuesday saying “there’s still a lot of race left to run.”

And Gonzales said if Trump’s presidential campaign falls apart in Ohio, it could be hard for Portman to win.

“If the bottom falls out of this election for Republicans, Ted Strickland could still win,” he said.

Jack Torry of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.