The Cleveland Plain Dealer | July 9, 2015
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In late 2014, the man who is now Ted Strickland's deputy campaign manager laid out fundraising goals for Strickland's U.S. Senate race. By those yardsticks, Strickland, a former Ohio governor, is running woefully behind as he tries to win the 2016 election.
That doesn't mean Strickland, a Democrat, cannot raise the recommended $20 million by November 2016 in his hope of ousting incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. Strickland leads Portman in recent polls of Ohio voters.
But Strickland is already far behind Portman, a prodigious fund-raiser, in the money department. And he lags behind the recommendations presented in a November 2014 memo from Justin Brennan, now Strickland's deputy campaign manager, and Erik Greathouse, a longtime Strickland political adviser and fundraiser.
The two made their recommendations in a 10-page memo that encouraged Strickland to run for the Senate and presented "mission-critical projects" they said were necessary to build a campaign. These included fund-raising projections that Strickland has already missed, and may continue to.
Brennan and Greathouse were not working officially for Strickland at the time. Greathouse, however, helped raise money for Strickland after he announced his candidacy in February, and has been a top fundraising and political adviser to Strickland in prior Ohio campaigns. He is a former finance director for the Ohio Democratic Party.
Strickland recently hired Brennan as his deputy campaign manager when Brennan left his job as finance director for Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The Clinton super PAC changed its top leadership after its "anemic" fund-raising, Politico reported in late June.
Greathouse, asked about the numbers in his memo and his intent in helping write it, would not comment other than to say, "Ted Strickland is the best positioned to win the Senate race in Ohio in 2016."
Strickland campaign spokesman Dennis Willard issued a statement saying, "This is just one example of the dozens of people who tried to convince Ted to run because they know Ted can beat Rob Portman, and there's no question we're on track to do just that. There's no better proof that Ted is mounting a strong campaign than the unprecedented early spending by Portman's special interest allies who are clearly threatened by Ted's strength."
A Quinnipiac University Poll in June found that if the election were today, Strickland would defeat Portman by six points. But enough voters were undecided that neither candidate can be confident, especially this early.
So Portman is already spending money on Web advertising in hopes that voters will start to think of Strickland -- who lost to John Kasich in 2010 -- as a governor who cost Ohio jobs, despite the role of the national economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also is running anti-Strickland television ads, and a group called One Nation, affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove, is running radio ads supporting Portman.
Put together, these ads represent as much as $3 million in spending against Strickland or for Portman, more than a year before the election.
Strickland will need money from his campaign and outside groups to advertise if Portman's defensive ads work. Democrats familiar with his campaign say he'll get it, in spite of early challenges.
The Greathouse-Brennan memo reads in part like a pitch from consultants seeking campaign work, saying, "We hope the quality of the thoughts and plans we have detailed in this memo convey to you both our desire to be part of your team and the likely success we think you will find in 2016 should you decide to run."
Democrats in Washington and Columbus maintain, however, that it was not a proposal by Greathouse and Brennan to get hired on the campaign. They say it was merely one of many communications sent by supporters and friends encouraging the former governor to go for the Senate.
The Strickland campaign said the former governor has known Brennan for years and the memo had nothing to do with Brennan's recent hiring.
The memo included a paragraph advising that Strickland ask U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, to pledge to raise $500,000 for Strickland in New York City. Schumer would want Strickland to run, the memo said, partly because defeating Portman and electing another Democrat would help Schumer's goal of becoming the next Senate majority leader.
Schumer "will know that by supporting you early, he will be more likely to lock-in your vote for his elevation" to Senate leader, the memo said.
Democrats in Washington on Wednesday scoffed at the idea of any such pledge or deal, saying the idea was preposterous. They noted that Schumer was quick to win support from his Senate Democratic caucus upon the announcement by Harry Reid, the party's top Democrat, that he would retire in 2016. They added that Schumer's support for a Strickland candidacy was practically a given.
The party's official campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has endorsed Strickland over a competing Democratic upstart, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who is considered a long-shot.
As for the financial benchmarks, the figures laid out by Greathouse and Brennan appear to have been overly ambitious from the start. The pair said Strickland needed to raise $2 million in the first three months of 2015 and $2.5 million in the second quarter, targets that would help Strickland raise $20 million by the 2016 election.
But Strickland, starting out late on fund-raising, raised only $671,073 in the first quarter. He has not yet released his second-quarter numbers, which do not have to be filed publicly until July 15, but they are almost certain to fall short of his advisers' goals.
That can be determined already from conversations with Democrats and from the fact that few Democrats running for U.S. Senate seats have raised such sums, either. For example, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold raised about $2.2 million in the second quarter in his attempted Senate comeback. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, hoping to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, raised $1.2 million. (Update: As noted here, the Strickland campaign said subsequent to this article that it raise just over $1 million in the second quarter.)
Portman has no such problem. He reported raising $2.75 million in the first quarter and $2.9 million in the second quarter.
It takes more than money to win. Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is not up for reelection until 2018, outraised challenger Josh Mandel in 2012, but was outspent heavily on TV and radio commercials when attack-ad money from outside groups was counted. Yet Brown won that 2012 race.
Brown also started the campaign with slow fund-raising -- lower than the goals recommended in the Greathouse-Brennan memo. However, Brown wasn't starting from scratch. At the end of the first quarter of 2011, a time somewhat comparable to now, Brown's campaign had $2.5 million in the bank.
Strickland, by comparison, had $649,171 as of his last report -- while Portman ended the last quarter with more than $10 million in the bank.
That's why Portman can afford to advertise so early -- and why Strickland will need to raise more money.
Democrats nonetheless are insistent: Money won't be a problem, and after all, Strickland is already ahead in the polls.
"Rob Portman and his Washington special interest overlords have already spent millions to prop up a reelection effort that numerous public polls show is losing to Ted Strickland, and we're thrilled that Ted is running such a great campaign and exceeding our expectations," said Justin Barasky, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.