County Republicans are scrambling to find a new candidate for one of the most anticipated local elections next year.
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann was supposed to be the well-funded, Republican incumbent who would face off against Denise Driehaus for the seat next November.
That changed Monday morning when Hartmann unexpectedly announced he’s dropping out of the race.
Now, the Hamilton County Republican Party has just three weeks to find someone with enough name recognition and fundraising prowess to stand up against Driehaus, a well-known Democrat who’s leaving her job as a statehouse representative next year.
Republicans say it’s possible; just hours after Hartmann’s midnight announcement they were already talking to potential candidates. But Democrats had plenty of reason to gloat over the situation Monday in the wake of Hartmann’s announcement.
“No doubt about it, it gives Denise Driehaus a better opportunity to pick up the seat,” said Jared Kamrass, a political strategist at Cincinnati-based Rivertown Strategies. Kamrass has engineered several campaigns for local Democrats.
Driehaus is running for an open seat now – not against an incumbent – giving her an instant boost.
As president of the board, Hartmann enjoyed the advantage of instant publicity every time he wanted to hold a press conference, Kamrass said. This was also an advantage with fundraising – he had $300,000 in the bank, according to campaign finance records filed in July. And, since Hartmann had been on the ballot so many times for different races, it brought instant name recognition.
“Voters were just used to seeing his name on the ballot,” Kamrass said.
Republicans have enjoyed the majority on the three-member county commission since 2010 – giving them power in votes, including a 2014 deal that kicked Music Hall off a plan to fund renovations with a sales tax increase.
“I was just shocked,” Monzel said of Hartmann’s 5 p.m. call to him Sunday, notifying him he was no longer running. “I kept saying, ‘Wow. I didn’t see that coming at all.' Having Greg around here for six years, you get used to an individual and how get a long with them. It’s going to be weird.”
If a Democrat is elected to the county board, which controls a $200 million annual budget and dictates how millions of your tax dollars will be spent, things are certain to change.
County Commissioner Todd Portune believes if another Democratic commissioner joins the board, issues such as economic development and childhood poverty will be a bigger priority. He also believes the county and the city, which has a Democrat-dominated council, will work better together. Portune is up for re-election next year as well.
“There’s no doubt, given the current makeup of the two (governments), that it would improve the dynamic,” Portune said. He added that he and Driehaus have many personal relationships with members on council.
But the GOP isn’t ready to just hand over power to the county’s Democrats.
“It’s crucial we elect a Republican,” said Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou. “There’s no question this is a high-profile race.”
He speculates candidates will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their campaigns and it could turn out to be a $1 million race.
Just hours after Hartmann’s stunning midnight announcement, Triantafilou was talking with possible replacements. There are a few interested candidates – although he declined to hand over his short list – but he’s confident they’ll have a new name to announce before the Dec. 16 deadline.
Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an Independent, pulled a petition to run for the seat as a Republican Tuesday.
I just pulled a 2016 Republican petition for Hamilton County Commissioner. pic.twitter.com/CPYz2xEo2r
— C. Smitherman (@voteSmitherman) November 24, 2015
Councilwoman Amy Murray, a Republican, also confirmed that she's mulling a run for the seat but said she's going to take the next week to think about it. Murray has two years left on her council seat.
Local politicos have also suggested City Councilman Charlie Winburn, Hamilton County Court of Appeals Judge Sylvia Hendon and Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Tracy Winkler as serious contenders
"There are people who have been thinking about this for a long time. It won’t take much to get someone to make this commitment,” Triantafilou said Monday. “Some notoriety with the public is helpful and the ability to fundraise is crucial – those are the two big things.”
That commissioner seat will be one of the most important local races for voters to watch next year – and it will likely be the most hard fought, said University of Cincinnati politics professor David Niven.
Driehaus is a serious candidate who has won elected office in competitive races.
“She’s tested,” he said.
A presidential election will bring high turnout and could lean Democratic – it could have been a deciding factor, too, for Hartmann to walk away from the race.
“If Democrats have a strong showing locally and statewide, then it’s a drain on all Republican candidates,” he said. “This would not be a pleasant election in a presidential year against a serious opponent.”
Hartmann didn’t give any hints as to why he’s leaving – other than that he hopes the county will get a “fresh perspective” with a new commissioner – or if he’ll pursue other public offices. Hartmann also works as an attorney at his Cincinnati law firm Shea, Coffey & Hartmann.
But don’t count on him being gone for long, Triantafilou said.
“We’ve not heard the last of Greg Hartmann on the political scene,” Traintafilou said. “He’s too talented of a guy – his years of public service are not over.”