While Republicans have said little so far about a potential matchup against Jerry Springer (D) in 2004, operatives and those close to Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are sizing up the prospect of facing a costlier-than-expected, circus-like campaign against the king of trash-talk television.
While Republicans are not sweating his re-election prospects, sources said Voinovich cringes at the idea of being drawn into what will almost certainly become an international media frenzy. The first-term Senator has said that Springer is the Democrats’ problem at this point.
Springer formed a campaign committee earlier this month and is expected to announce this week whether he will officially enter the race. If he runs, Springer will face state Sen. Eric Fingerhut in the Democratic primary.
Fingerhut, a former one-term Congressman who showed $233,000 in the bank at the end of June, has acknowledged he faces an uphill battle against Voinovich. Although polling has shown his unfavorable rating at 71 percent, many Democrats and even some Republicans privately acknowledge the self-financing Springer could well end up as his party’s nominee.
Republicans thus far have discounted Springer’s hypothetical candidacy, although the party is acutely aware of the differences it would face in a general election campaign against Springer as opposed to Fingerhut. And they maintain that Voinovich, who had $3.4 million in reserve as of June 30, is safe either way.
“Whether it’s his resources, his name ID or the circus environment he would create, Jerry Springer would be a more troubling candidate than Eric Fingerhut,” said Neil Volz, a GOP lobbyist and former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). But at the end of the day, he said, “the Beavis and Butthead vote in Ohio isn’t big enough to elect Jerry Springer Senator.”
More than anything when discussing Springer, Republicans point to the added expense of a race against a millionaire who declines to give his estimated net worth even while maintaining that he doesn’t want to fully self-finance a campaign.
“Obviously you’re not going to take anything for granted,” said one GOP campaign operative. “And we fully believe that even with Jerry Springer in the race, we’ll win. But, any candidate that has the potential to gain the amount of earned media attention that Springer can, as well as contribute the resources that Springer could potentially commit, is something that makes heads turn.”
Earlier this month the Ohio Republican Party released a poll that showed Springer losing the Democratic primary to Fingerhut, 51 percent to 21 percent.
The release of the poll, timed to coincide with Springer’s campaign committee filing, was touted by the talk show host’s campaign operatives as evidence that Republicans are nervous about the possibility of facing a “wildcard” like Springer.
“If they really believed that Jerry Springer was the weakest candidate that they could run against, then why in the world would they be leaking these poll results?” said Dale Butland, communications director for Springer’s exploratory effort. “They would be doing exactly the opposite. … They would be hoping that the Democratic nominee is the weak sister.”
Butland also discounted the results of the poll because it was conducted by The Tarrance Group, a GOP polling firm, and he said primary voters know better.
“They’re not stupid,” Butland said. “They’re not going to trust George Voinovich’s pollster to tell them who the strongest opponent is against George Voinovich.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans point to the upside of having the controversial talk show host as an opponent. For example, Voinovich will likely be able to tap a national donor base if he faces Springer.
Other Republicans say Springer, whose favorable/unfavorable rating was 13 percent to 71 percent in a February University of Cincinnati poll, is the most desirable candidate to face on the ballot next November.
“I got to believe that we’d rather run against Jerry Springer than Eric Fingerhut,” said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), noting Fingerhut’s stature as a state lawmaker and former Congressman. He said most people he talks to in the state are laughing about the former Cincinnati mayor-turned-TV ringmaster’s potential candidacy.
“It’s laughable, except if Springer can turn those people out to vote who watch his show,” Boehner said, adding that he doesn’t think those people would ever vote.
Ney said both Springer and Fingerhut are ideal candidates for Republicans to run against, but he disagreed slightly with Boehner’s assessment of Fingerhut’s candidacy.
“Fingerhut is a miserable candidate for the Democratic Party,” Ney said, describing him as “the biggest lefty” in the the state. “But he can beat Jerry Springer.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said Voinovich will win no matter whom he faces.
“It means nothing who the Democrats nominate,” he said.
While speculation has persisted that Voinovich might not be fully committed to this campaign, leading some to wonder whether he could eventually drop out, Republicans reiterated that Voinovich is full of energy these days and ready for the fight. In mid-June, the 67-year-old Senator had a pacemaker installed to fix a slowing heart.
“One, do I think that he relishes a race against Jerry Springer? No,” said a former Ohio GOP official. “But two, I know that if he’s in that race, I know that he will rise to that challenge … and not shrink from a race. There’s no way that Jerry Springer chases George Voinovich away from a race.”
“He’s in this,” added Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who is holding a fundraiser for Voinovich next month.
LaTourette said it would be a “sad day” for Democrats in the state if Springer is their nominee, but he conceded that that outcome would change the calculation for Republicans.
“It would require Senator Voinovich to run an unconventional campaign,” LaTourette said.