Why underdog PG won't give up Senate race

Posted at 1:05 PM, Nov 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-23 13:05:48-05

CINCINNATI -- P.G. Sittenfeld has political experts shaking their heads.

They had predicted the 31-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman would have given up his underdog bid for the U.S. Senate Democratic primary against  former Ohio governor Ted Strickland a long, long time ago.

Instead, Sittenfeld spent November driving across Ohio, marching in a Cleveland Veterans Day parade, speaking to Young Democrats at Denison University, delivering a major speech on gun safety in Columbus, and appearing on a Dayton television news show.

Then on Nov. 16, he attended a fundraiser at a home in Amberley Village to fuel a campaign that he had been expected to bow out of gracefully months ago.

“I look forward to winning in 2016. That is the sole goal,” Sittenfeld said. “We are pursuing every single vote without question.”

Yet the obstacles seem almost insurmountable. When he announced his candidacy in January, it was an empty Democratic field. But then party favorite Strickland jumped into the race a month later.


Ted Strickland speaks at the Hamilton County Democratic Fall Fundraiser at Longworth Hall Oct. 19. Photo by Phil Didion.


In an effort to pressure Sittenfeld to end his campaign, the Ohio Democratic Party gave an embarrassingly early endorsement to Strickland in April.

But Sittenfeld would not quit.

“I hear this a lot around the state: “I’m going to vote for Ted Strickland, but I’m really impressed with PG Sittenfeld,” said Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke, who is undecided how he will vote. “PG has demonstrated his ability to handle big issues.”

Strickland has a clear advantage in name recognition, fundraising and poll numbers.

“The primary is an enormous uphill battle to run without a statewide name against somebody who is a hero to a lot of people in the party,” said David Niven, a University of Cincinnati political science professor. “As much effort as he (Sittenfeld) puts in, the vast majority of Ohioans have never heard of him and you see that in every single poll.”

Even if Sittenfeld did somehow beat Strickland in the March primary, he would then face an even bigger hurdle against Republican Sen. Rob Portman in the fall general election.


U.S. Senator Rob Portman


A recent Quinnipiac University poll predicted Sittenfeld would lose 49 to 27 percent to Portman. And Portman already has $11.1 million in cash on hand to Sittenfeld’s $784,077, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Yet Sittenfeld remains steeped in positivity.

“There are plenty of things I could run for. I’m in this because I want to make the biggest impact that I can,” he said. “I chose very intentionally where I want to make my mark.”

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 to ever win a seat on Cincinnati City Council. Then he was re-elected in 2013 with the highest margin of votes in city history.

“There were 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.”

Sittenfeld doesn’t believe in “wait-your-turn” politics, and is counting on his appeal with young voters. He has branded himself as a fresh face with bold ideas and a progressive agenda.

Before starting his career in politics, Sittenfeld attended Seven Hills School in Cincinnati before going on to attend Princeton University. He went to graduate school at Oxford University.

“There is a such a desire in this country right now for new voices and new leaders and fresh perspectives,” he said. “And I understand … I’m not traveling the most conventional path to the United State Senate. But I also know that people aren’t looking for more of the same in Washington.”

Sittenfeld relies on social media to reach young voters. He previewed his first campaign ads on YouTube before releasing them on television during the first Democratic presidential debate, where he asked voters to meet him on Twitter.


Sittenfeld supporters wait for him to speak at the Democratic Fall Fundraiser Oct. 19. Photo by Phil Didion.


“That’s not something the average Senate candidate is doing,” Sittenfeld said. “President Obama harnessed the power of social media campaigns … we want to take it to the next level.”

While there isn’t much difference in policy stances between the two Democratic candidates, Sittenfeld has tried to distinguish himself by calling for stricter gun laws. He also criticized Strickland for not taking a stand on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

At a Hamilton County Democratic Fundraiser on Oct. 19, where both candidates made a rare appearance together, Strickland virtually ignored Sittenfeld. He only mentioned his name once, at the end of his speech.

“I’m running for this office and I’m running against Rob Portman. And everywhere I go, I talk about Rob Portman. He’s our enemy,” Strickland said.

“We are Democrats. We ought not to be fighting each other … And I won’t say a negative word about him because PG Sittenfeld is not my enemy,” Strickland said.

Strickland also ignored Sittenfeld’s call for debates and his supporter’s chants of “We want debates.”


Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland speaks at Fall Fundraiser. Photo by Phil Didion.


Political experts say this a common strategy by underdogs.

“If the race were close, both candidates would see an interest in having a debate,” Niven said. “When one candidate has universal name recognition and other doesn’t, that’s just a plea ‘to get me on the stage so other people can see me.’”

“There’s no upside for Strickland,” he added.

Sittenfeld’s New Super PAC

Instead of dropping out, Sittenfeld actually seems to still be gearing up for the March 15 primary.

Cincinnati lawyer Paul DeMarco started a new Super PAC for Sittenfeld in mid-September, New Leadership for Ohio. It raised $370,000 during its first two weeks, according to the PAC’s website.

Yet political experts speculate the reason Sittenfeld is refusing to quit may be to boost name recognition for a future run for office.

“If he has another office in mind, there’s the benefit of name recognition,” said Sean Comer, Xavier University’s director of government relations. “He sees this as an opportunity to run and get his platform out there and build who he is in places outside of Cincinnati.”


PG Sittenfeld waits to speak at the Fall Fundraiser. Photo by Phil Didion.


Comer believes Sittenfeld has high political aspirations, or he wouldn’t have run for U.S. Senate in the first place. He may run for a seat on the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, where he can reach a wider group, in preparation for his next statewide run.

Or if he captures an impressive voter total in the 2016 primary, even if he loses, he may be a strong candidate for a state office very soon, Comer said.

“Even if he doesn’t succeed in the primary he will come out of this not as damaged goods, but as having an awful lot of friends across the state,” Burke said. “I think he wants to win -- he’s not backing away from this at all.”