CINCINNATI -- In a few days, a scrappy 31-year-old Cincinnati City councilman will see how he fares in his first statewide race against a giant in the Ohio Democratic Party – Ted Strickland.
P.G. Sittenfeld’s campaign to become the Democratic choice to battle well-known and well-funded GOP Sen. Rob Portman this fall has been a David-vs.-Goliath battle from the beginning.
When Sittenfeld announced his candidacy in January 2015, it was an empty Democratic field. But then party favorite Strickland jumped into the race a month later. And the pressure began for Sittenfeld to drop out.
Even his own party gave an embarrassingly early endorsement to Strickland in April 2015.
But Sittenfeld would not quit.
Now with just days to go before the March 15 primary, Sittenfeld said he expects to win.
“I believed I could win from the moment I entered the race,” Sittenfeld said. “The appetite for change is unfolding even at the presidential level.”
Yet a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that Sittenfeld was virtually unknown to Ohio voters – 85 percent of those polled said they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
“It is an extremely daunting undertaking to run (a) statewide campaign in (a) state as large as Ohio,” said former Republican governor Bob Taft, now a distinguished research associate at the University of Dayton.
“Especially going from a councilman to the U.S. Senate. That’s a big leap,” Taft said. “It’s very hard for him to get known statewide.”
Taft describes Sittenfeld’s race as an “extremely uphill battle” against Strickland.
But Sittenfeld seems to be undaunted. He has maintained an exhausting travel schedule, visiting 15 cities in Ohio during the past month and picking up endorsements from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal.
“I don’t have any trouble falling asleep at night when my head hits the pillow,” he said. “Even on the harder days, I think about why I’m running and what I’m fighting for, and these are really important things.”
Sittenfeld as the Underdog
This isn’t the first time Sittenfeld has been an underdog.
In 2011, at age 27, he was the youngest person ever to win a seat on Cincinnati City Council. Then he was re-elected in 2013 with the highest margin of votes in city history.
“There was no shortage of folks who said, 'Don’t you think you’re a bit young? Maybe wait your turn a little bit longer,'” Sittenfeld said in an October speech. “But we had a vision and a work ethic. And we went out there and made history twice.”
But a U.S. Senate race is exponentially harder in a state with 11 million people against a man with instant name recognition. Strickland, 74, is a former governor and a former representative for Ohio's 6th Congressional District.
“Once you serve as governor, you become very well-known,” Taft said. “There’s a familiarity there that’s just hard to compete with.”
For his part, Strickland is paying no attention to his opponents. In addition to Sittenfeld, he also faces Cincinnati occupational therapist Kelli Prather.
Strickland ignored Sittenfeld’s repeated requests for debates and rarely mentions him during speeches. He has spent no money on advertising during the primary, despite Sittenfeld’s statewide television ad blitz running until the primary.
“I consider Sen. Rob Portman my competition. I do not want to spend my time talking about a fellow Democrat,” Strickland said.
While there aren’t huge policy differences between the two, Sittenfeld has sharply focused on one: gun violence. He criticized Strickland for his A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association and launched a campaign to allow cities to enact local gun laws that are stricter than state laws.
Sittenfeld has also picked up a host of impressive, if unusual, endorsements: Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars; former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste and “Breaking Bad” actor Jonathan Banks.
But Strickland tapped the biggest endorsements: from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt that left her with a severe brain injury. She and her husband, retired NASA astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, are the founders of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun violence prevention organization.
“We’ve known from the get-go the Ted Strickland campaign could engineer pretty much any endorsement from D.C. that they need,” Sittenfeld said. “The bigger thing is they clearly feel like they need it right now … there’s no question they are nervous about our momentum.”
What if Sittenfeld Loses?
Regardless of how Sittenfeld finishes on Tuesday, party leaders say he has proven that he can lead a strong statewide campaign and he has a future in politics.
Many have speculated that Sittenfeld launched his underdog U.S. Senate bid in order to boost name recognition ahead of the 2018 election, when many Ohio state offices will be up for grabs.
“I think P.G.’s future is very bright,” said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. “I think, win or lose, P.G. has impressed people across the state.”
Sittenfeld said he expects to win Hamilton County, but he also wants to do well statewide.
Yet Taft predicts a different scenario – Sittenfeld finishes 20 to 30 points behind Strickland.
“It would be remarkable if he finished within 10 points of Strickland.” Taft said.
But Sittenfeld is not giving up easily.
“A lot can happen in the home stretch of a campaign,” he said.