Months after primary, Ohio Dems still split

Two months after their Senate primary was settled, Ohio Democrats remain divided.

Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has yet to endorse Senate nominee Lee Fisher (D) and officials say she won’t, even as she prepares to remain politically active once her term expires in January.

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Fisher beat Brunner by a comfortable double-digit margin in their May 4 primary — a race that had its share of nasty twists and turns.

The bitterness continued Monday, when Brunner, in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, bashed the state’s Democratic “establishment.” She maintains that donors were pressured not to give to her campaign and criticized groups like EMILY’s List for not supporting her in the primary.

Brunner made similar charges during the primary campaign, in which she had trouble raising funds and getting TV ads on the air. Party officials had encouraged her to quit the race to clear the field for Fisher, who had the backing of Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and other officials.

Ohio Democratic Party officials downplayed any remaining rift, saying Brunner’s activist base is behind their nominee.

“If there was any division within the party, we wouldn’t have raised $600,000 last week or a million two weeks prior,” party Chairman Chris Redfern told The Hill, citing internal figures.

A spokesman for Fisher said Democrats are “strongly united” against Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman.

“Democrats are strongly united behind Lee because they view this as a choice between Congressman Portman, who has spent 20 years in Washington supporting tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and Lee, who has been on the ground fighting to create jobs in Ohio,” John Collins, a spokesman for Fisher, told The Hill.

But the Portman campaign is ready to exploit the fissures that remain between Brunner and Fisher, Ohio’s lieutenant governor.

A spokeswoman for Portman noted that during the primary, Brunner was critical of Fisher for leaving his post as the Strickland administration’s jobs czar. Moreover, the Brunner campaign press releases hitting Fisher on the issue remain accessible on her campaign website.

“The heat wave must be getting to Lt. Gov. Fisher’s campaign for them to so blatantly ignore the charges [Brunner] made during her campaign,” Portman spokeswoman Jessica Towhey said in an e-mail. “Just as he did then, [Fisher] is still unwilling to address why he left Ohio high and dry to campaign for his next job instead of looking out for Ohioans.”

Meanwhile, Brunner has formed Courage PAC, and recently sent an e-mail to supporters urging them to back North Carolina Senate candidate Elaine Marshall (D), but she has pointedly refused to endorse Fisher. A spokesman for Brunner’s office said that was because she wants to avoid partisan activities, as she’s the state’s top election official.

Redfern, the party chairman, said Brunner supports the Democratic ticket. And officials will be watching her actions in the lead-up to November, especially if she wants to stay involved in party politics.

Any lingering ill will from the primary could have greater significance because of the closeness of the general election — polls have shown Portman and Fisher virtually tied. A Quinnipiac University survey released June 30 had Fisher getting 42 percent, Portman 40 and 17 percent undecided. The June 22-27 survey, which polled 1,107 Ohio voters, also found that, by a margin of 33-30, voters trusted Portman more than Fisher to make good on his campaign promises.

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With that in mind, the Fisher campaign will try to portray Portman as the incumbent and work to highlight his long Washington résumé. But in order to do that, it’ll need money to air TV ads.

Portman has owned the airwaves since the primary, having released two TV ads without a response from Fisher.

The first was a biographical ad and the second, released this week, attacks cap-and-trade legislation.

Democratic officials note that Fisher had to spend some $2 million defeating Brunner and has since had to rebuild his war chest. Neither campaign has released its second-quarter fundraising numbers, which are due July 15. Collins noted that the campaign will have “the resources we need,” while Towhey said Portman had “another strong quarter.”

Fisher has had fundraising help. Vice President Joe Biden made his second fundraising trip to Ohio for Fisher last week, speaking at a lunch in Cleveland.

Fisher also has had trouble maintaining top staff. His campaign has gone through three managers this year.

Veteran Democratic campaign hand Jay Howser took over from Geri Prado in February. But he abruptly left the campaign last month shortly after Portman went up on the air with his first TV ad. The Fisher campaign said Howser transitioned to a consulting role because as a newlywed he had family obligations that limit his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the campaign. He was replaced by Lynne Bowman, the former executive director of Equality Ohio.