Don’t shut voters out of the primary

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune told the Cincinnati Enquirer that top Democratic party leaders asked him not to challenge their endorsed candidate, Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald, in the primary for governor.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern immediately denied the claim.

However, a Tribune Chronicle Editorial Board meeting with FitzGerald, along with recent gubernatorial elections, cast doubt on Redfern’s sincerity. The Tribune Chronicle is a sister newspaper of the Salem News in the Ogden Newspaper Group.

In 2006, Ohio Democrats weeded out most of the field for governor even before the primary. That way, then-U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland was able to amass a campaign war chest and move into the general election campaign unscathed by a close primary.

Meanwhile, three Republicans battled for their party’s nomination. Kenneth Blackwell won it, but in doing so limped into the general election with little cash and after having had to defend against sharp criticism from his primary opponents.

Strickland won handily.

Republicans followed suit in 2010 by coalescing behind challenger John Kasich, who eventually upset Strickland. Without primary opposition, Kasich entered the general election with a healthy, wealthy campaign.

Now it’s the Democrats’ turn again.

In September 2012, Fitzgerald told the Tribune Chronicle Editorial Board that a 2014 primary would be ”suicidal.” Expecting Kasich to raise $20 million for a re-election campaign, Fitzgerald said the Democrats must, prior to the primary, weed the field down to the one who could then raise enough money to mount a challenge.

At the time, there were four leading Democrats – FitzGerald, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, former Gov. Ted Strickland and former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. Early last year, that field had been narrowed to FitzGerald and Ryan.

In March 2013, on the same day that FitzGerald said he was forming an exploratory committee to consider a gubernatorial bid, Ryan announced that he would decide within days whether to run for governor. Sure enough, four days later Ryan announced he would not run.

Since Portune announced he is considering a primary bid for the party’s endorsement, Redfern has blasted him publicly. That falls in line with the party’s desire to avoid a contest.

Unfortunately, without a contested primary, there is no way to know which Democrat will resonate best with voters. Also, the nominee’s vulnerabilities would likely sit dormant until the general election, when it might be too late for successful damage control. And let’s not forget that this process cheats the voters, devolving politics to the days of smoke-filled, back-room deals.

If Refern believes Democrats offer something better on the issues, he should not allow back-door politics and agreements to shut voters out of the primary.