By Lisa Hagen - 01/27/16 12:10 PM EST
Democrat Ted Strickland looks like the prohibitive favorite for the nomination to challenge Ohio's incumbent Republican senator, but that's not stopping his Democratic challenger from pushing the former governor to defend his record.
While most long-shot candidates attract little media attention or donors, let alone a super-PAC, Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld has been a growing presence in the race.
As Sittenfeld's visibility has increased, the 74-year-old Strickland has reported disappointing fundraising numbers, and polls show a close race against incumbent Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanVulnerable House freshmen passed most bills in decades, analysis finds Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage Is crumbling Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support MORE (R). Democrats are looking to flip the seat in their quest to retake Senate control.
"P.G. is trying to heat it up, and I’m not sure he’s having great success about that," said Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University. "I think his role here is to try to position himself for a future office, generate some name recognition."
Sittenfeld, however, believes he would fare better in a general election match-up against Portman than his Democratic opponent would.
“I’m running for Senate because of the impact I think I can have. I think I’m guy to beat Rob Portman,” Sittenfeld told The Hill in an interview, adding that he wants to “make the race about new leadership.”
Despite mounting calls from some Democrats for Sittenfeld to drop out of the race and clear a path for Strickland, the councilman has refused to back down and plans to continue holding the former governor accountable on his record.
"We’re running a substantive, issue-based campaign. The discourse and tone we strike is civil, but we absolutely think Ted Strickland needs to take accountability for an A-plus rating from the NRA and the votes he cast," Sittenfeld said.
Sittenfeld, 31, has been hammering Strickland over his record on gun control, highlighting his high marks from the National Rifle Association, which Strickland also touted during an interview last March before asserting he had reassessed his position after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It’s an issue that some Democrats worry will be a vulnerability for Strickland in the general election. “When you switch your views on something voter believe are fundamental issues ... you really raise doubts about your core beliefs and core values,” former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-Ohio) said.
Strickland's camp defends his statement from the March interview, arguing that it’s “very clear” where he currently stands on guns and noting his support for President Obama’s recent executive actions to expand background checks.
Sittenfeld’s charges about the interview on guns “are not backed up,” Strickland campaign spokesman David Bergstein said. “Former Gov. Strickland was responding to a specific question about his past record, and that he’s not a lobbyist.”
While Sittenfeld is grabbing headlines, he still has an uphill battle before the March 15 primary.
A handful of prominent Democrats in Summit County, the state's fourth-largest county, including the mayor of Akron, have endorsed Sittenfeld, but the Ohio Democratic Party, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and even former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonMosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict Making peace with the idea of voting for Clinton ObamaCare hikes leave Dems exposed MORE were all quick to rally behind Strickland after his entry into the race last February.
The councilman also lags behind in fundraising. Sittenfeld raised about $235,000 in the fourth quarter, bringing his 2015 total to nearly $1.5 million; Strickland hauled in nearly $1.1 million in that same quarter and raised nearly $3.8 million over the year.
But the super-PAC aligned with Sittenfeld gives a boost to the councilman’s fundraising. New Leadership for Ohio raised more than $700,000 since it was created three and a half months ago.
Sittenfeld's doggedness has forced Strickland to respond to his little-known challenger, a move some strategists say will strengthen Strickland as a general election candidate.
"As experienced and as good a candidate, it’ll make him a better candidate," long-time Democratic strategist Greg Haas said about Strickland.
"The reality is Ted being forced to campaign now is a good thing," Haas continued. "I think they should be taking a look at it as an opportunity, avoid temptation to run away from your record, but run with your record."
Eckart agreed, saying that contested primaries better prepare candidates "to come up with good answers now" than rather in the general election.
While Strickland may be answering to charges Sittenfeld makes in ads and campaign appearances, he has declined to participate in primary debates, which the challenger has called for by saying Strickland “needs to go in front of people and press and own that record.”
Spokesman Bergstein responded, "Gov. Strickland has said he wants to use his time and energies drawing contrasts with those he’ll be running against in the general, not get into a fight with another Democrat."
Haas argued that Strickland should participate in some debates but cautioned him to not "take the bait about drifting too far to left in the primary, because he’s the favorite and he doesn’t have to."
Others say there just aren’t enough differences between the candidates to warrant debates; Asher noted the "only major substance is talking about guns."
Republicans have celebrated the recent spotlight cast on Strickland's campaign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has emailed a flurry of press releases over the last week knocking his record and highlighting the absence of the former governor on the campaign trail.
GOP strategists also view Sittenfeld as a long shot but say his effort to press Strickland on certain issues are having an impact on his campaign.
"He’s certainly been a call for turmoil and lasting damage to Ted’s campaign," said Barry Bennett, a veteran Ohio political operative and former Portman adviser.
Portman has a significant cash advantage going into the general election. He outraised Strickland two-to-one in the fourth fundraising quarter of 2015. And the GOP senator has more than $12 million cash on hand, compared to Strickland’s $2 million cash on hand.
Despite the huge disparity in fundraising numbers, a RealClearPolitics average of polls in Ohio showed a tight race, with Strickland ahead by a narrow margin of less than 1 percentage point. The most recent poll conducted was a Bowling Green State University survey from late October that found a wider margin with Strickland leading Portman by almost 8 points.
"I think the story of this primary is Sen. Portman and his allies for about a year have spent $11 million to attack Strickland and they’ve taken their best shot at us," Bergstein said. "We haven’t spent money on paid media."
Some Republicans say that thanks to Sittenfeld’s challenges, some of Strickland's attention has shifted to the primary, arguing that this will be a boon for Portman in the general election.
"Strickland has to now focus on the primary, something he does not want to focus on," GOP strategist Curt Steiner said. "He won’t be as well prepared for the general election."