GOP’s Ohio seat a ’16 prize
© Francis Rivera

The Democratic path to reclaiming the Senate will run through the perennial battleground state of Ohio, but the party has its work cut out for it in unseating Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOn The Money: Mnuchin to attend anti-terror meeting in Saudi Arabia | Treasury releases guidance on 'opportunity zone' program | Maxine Waters gets company in new GOP line of attack Election Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms How Kavanaugh got the votes  MORE (R-Ohio).

Portman announced earlier this month he’d forgo a bid for the White House and instead focus on his reelection. He announced his intentions in a release boasting that he has $5.8 million in his campaign account and the support of 250 Republicans in the Buckeye State, from Gov. John Kasich on down.


As a statement of strength to potential challengers on the left and the right, it had the desired impact.

“He’s going to be a formidable opponent, there’s no downplaying that at all,” said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party in Ohio.

Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party leader in the state who is advocating for a conservative challenger to Portman, concurred.

“The establishment’s intent is to eliminate competition, and releasing those figures on his war chest and the endorsements from elected officials was clearly an attempt to scare challengers off,” he said.  “We don’t have anywhere near that kind of money. We can make up for it in the ground game, but the question [for a Tea Party] candidate is whether it’s a fight you can win.”

Ohio is one of seven states won twice by President Obama in presidential elections where Republicans are defending Senate seats. A pick-up here will be critical to Democratic efforts to reclaim the majority in the upper chamber.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesman Justin Barasky called Portman “one of the most vulnerable” Republican senators up for reelection in 2016, arguing that his reputation as a creature of Washington, his complicity in the government shutdown and his support of Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE’s (R-Wis.) budget would weigh on his reelection efforts.

Still, Barasky acknowledged Portman is a fundraising powerhouse.

“Democrats will never match his special interests bank account,” Barasky said. “But we’ll have the resources we need to run a strong campaign and finally send him back to Ohio.”

At the moment, Democratic options for a viable challenger are limited to either running a former governor who lost his last bid for office or catching lightning in a bottle.

Former Gov. Ted Strickland has said he’s considering a run. He’s by far the most imposing potential challenger on the Democratic bench, and his candidacy would set up a battle between Ohio political heavyweights.

He’s also the closest thing Democrats have to a candidate who would clear the primary field.

“He’s a household name; he raises enormous sums of money from all over the country; and he has the respect and admiration of Democrats in Ohio and in Washington,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think some [Democrats] would potentially reconsider running if he jumped in.”

Strickland won the race for governor in 2006 but narrowly lost to Kasich in his bid for reelection in 2010. Democrats note that 2010 was a Republican wave year, and Strickland only lost to Kasich by 2 points in a cycle when many Democrats in the state were blown out by double digits.

They also say that as a former representative from Ohio’s 6th District, he still has a strong base and the ability to energize voters in the southeastern portion of the state, which has tilted Republican in recent elections.

If he chooses to run, Strickland would likely have an ally at the top of the Democratic ticket: Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race MORE. He was one of Clinton’s fiercest supporters in her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination, and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonConservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue No, civility isn't optional MORE campaigned for him in his losing gubernatorial bid in 2010.

“They’re personally close. He’s a true Hillary believer,” Pepper said. “I think one of the factors on whether he’ll run will be what’s most helpful for Clinton in 2016.”

But if Strickland, who will be 75 in 2016, decides against running, the Democratic bench falls off dramatically.

Other potential candidates include former Rep. Betty Sutton, Rep. Tim Ryan, and outgoing Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. But most of the buzz in the state among Democrats right now is centered on a young, telegenic city councilman from Cincinnati named P.G. Sittenfeld.

Democrats call Sittenfeld a “next generation candidate” and a rising star in the party. He’s recently been traveling the state, meeting with party leaders, and feeling out donors about a potential Senate run.

“He’s very impressive, and he’s being taken very seriously,” Burke said. “He’s a heck of an organizer … terrific on the issues and well-studied. Anyone selling him short is making a real mistake.”

But even Democrats note that relying on an up-and-comer breaking out against a Senate incumbent is a crapshoot. Burke acknowledged that a U.S. Senate race is of “a different magnitude” from anything 30-year-old Sittenfeld has taken on before.

Conservatives are not impressed.

“A Cincinnati councilman?” Zawistowski said. “Are you kidding me?”

Democrats will be rooting for the Tea Party to inject some chaos into the race. Portman has infuriated some social conservatives in the state for coming out in support of gay marriage, saying he changed his mind on the issue after learning that his son is gay.

Gay marriage could be a big issue in the battleground state ahead of 2016. Ohio’s ban is among the cases the Supreme Court is considering as it again takes up same-sex marriage this term.

“I will tell you the social conservative movement is adamant that we’ll have someone running in the primaries against him,” Zawistowski said. “We’re working very hard on that.”

Still, he noted that Senate primary races have been “priced off the map” for many conservative upstarts and acknowledged it was “basically a suicide mission” to take on the well-heeled, establishment-backed Portman.

The Portman campaign doesn’t appear to be sweating a Tea Party challenge. An aide noted that many Tea Party and conservative leaders are among the 250 who already have endorsed his reelection.

Once they have their candidate, Democratic efforts will be focused on turnout. They say their numbers “skyrocket” in a presidential year election and argue that, while Portman has a relatively high profile in Washington, his name identification back home is lagging.

“If we do our job, this will be a competitive race and should be a pickup opportunity,” Pepper said.