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Ohio's Democratic Senate primary heats up, but don't expect a debate
Strickland rejects the call for a debate, saying he's focused on Portman, not Sittenfeld
This story is part of a special series.

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M.L. Schultze
Sittenfeld got key endorsements from Summit County Democrats, but the weight of the state party is still behind Strickland.
Courtesy of M.L. SCHULTZE
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Five top Summit County Democrats bucked their state party this week and endorsed P.G. Sittenfeld, the underdog in the March primary for the Democratic nomination for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat. Their reasons varied, but centered on the core idea that primary competition is good for the political parties, the voters and the state.
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Lots of national attention and money is starting to focus on Ohio’s Senate race. But the handicapping usually looks right past the March 15th Democratic  primary to a presumed matchup in the fall of GOP incumbent Rob Portman and Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Polls and political money say that makes sense.

Not so fast, P.G. Sittenfeld told a group of Democrats and reporters in Akron this week.

“’I have high name ID’ isn’t a very inspiring campaign slogan. Polls reflect a snapshot in time. What wins elections at the end of the day is an exciting, substantive message.”

The 31-year-old Cincinnati councilman has been in the race for the Democratic nomination about as long as Strickland. He and his Super PAC, New Leadership Ohio, have raised more than $2 million.

One of the biggest differences between the two men running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in March is age. The other has been guns. But as WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports, the gun issue is evolving.

LISTEN: Sittenfeld and Strickland on guns
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P.G. Sittenfeld, the 31-year-old Cincinnati councilman, has made gun safety a centerpiece of his primary campaign – calling for  universal background checks, childproof locks, removing special legal protections for gun dealers and keeping people on the no-fly list from being able to buy guns.

He’s also repeatedly raised the A rating his opponent, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, has gotten from the NRA.

“We cannot have our next United States senator be a pawn of the gun lobby and the NRA. Nobody is trying to take away law-abiding citizen’s firearms. … This is aobut common sense proposals broadly supported by Democrats, also supported by Republicans, also supported by gun owners.”

Strickland, 74, says his position has evolved as tragedies have erupted, and he supports checks and other measures.

“I can’t tell you that I had a Eureka moment when all of the sudden my thinking changed. But it was the result of several incidents that occurred. Certainly Sandy Hook being among the most horrendous.”

As late as 2015, on public radio station WOSU, Strickland boasted of his NRA rating, and noted he voted against an assault weapons ban in Congress.                            

He’s landed some punches with Democratic core voters in noting Strickland’s long support from the NRA. And this week, he picked up key endorsements in the Democratic stronghold of Summit County, including that of Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Summit Executive Russ Pry.

Strickland says no to debates
So why does Ted Strickland barely mention Sittenfeld’s name, and flatly refuse Sittenfeld’s call for debates?

 “There are so many differences between Sen. Portman and myself I don’t want to spend my time arguing with  a fellow Democrat. I want to spend my time calling out Sen. Portman for opposing increasing the minimum wage, for being against pay equity for women, for sponsoring a federal right-to-work bill.”

For state Sen. and former Congressman Tom  Sawyer – whom Strickland describes as a friend – that won’t wash. Sawyer is among the Democrats endorsing Sittenfeld.  

Differing read on robust primaries
“Whenever I have run for an office, I’ve always engaged in debates. They’ve always been cordial, civil and this could be as well. But they were always about ideas. And that’s what this primary campaign so far has lacked, at least on one side. Getting two people together to share ideas is really what debating is about.”

But candidates with substantial leads often don’t debate challengers. And Strickland is in the lead on several fronts. He’s raised nearly twice what Sittenfeld has. He’s got name recognition rivaling – even exceeding -- Portman’s. And he won the endorsement of the Ohio Democratic Party last spring – far earlier than usual. Still, not all Democrats have fallen in line.

In fact, one of just two Democrats elected to statewide office in Ohio – Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill --  publicly excoriated his party, saying – quote – “the inmates are running the asylum” and that Democrats learned nothing from their trouncing in 2010 and 2014.

Summit County Council President Eileen Shapiro is among the five leading county Democrats who broke with the state party this week to endorse P.G. Sittenfeld in March’s  Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

Sittenfeld is running against former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland – and against the wishes of most of the state leadership of the party.

But Shapiro says endorsements matter most in ground up campaigns.

LISTEN: Shapiro on what's different
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“Both past Gov. Strickland and Sen. Portman have a lot of name recognition. But that doesn’t beat a grass roots effort, getting people out to know what they stand for and what they might take to the Senate that’s different. “

The winner of the March 15 primary will run in the fall against incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman

Sawyer isn’t so bombastic. But he insists his party made a mistake.

They didn’t consult those of us who are standing here. They didn’t ask. Truth of the matter is, neither did Ted. P.G. did. He came and asked for our support. Talked to us about his positions, as candidates should.”

A strong primary, said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, makes a strong candidate.

“Having been through a few primaries, I can tell you they make you sharper as a candidate and sharper as a person. So primaries are competition and competition we should encourage.”

The intersection of experience and age
Strickland says he has been sharpened by incomparable experience: overseeing the tremendous growth in green energy in Ohio, engineering economic revitalization in the worst of times, building schools.

But Sittenfeld notes that age often comes with experience.  Strickland is 74, more than twice Sittenfeld’s age. Sittenfeld  is careful to say he has nothing against the fellow Democrat, but frames the race as past vs. future. He claims he can focus on what he calls Portman’s “out of touch voting record.”   

“And we’re going to able to make this a look forward. I think if he’s standing side-by-side against Ted, it’s going to be two people sniping about pas baggage.”

And, says another of the Sittenfeld supporters -- 30-year-old state Rep. Emelia Sykes, age matters.

“When young people see young leaders encouraging the community as a whole, it means a lot.”

 How much age, experience, money and name recognition mean won’t be clear until after March 15, when the primary is over and all Democrats’ attention officially shifts to Rob Portman.

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