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Ohio’s Primary Colors

Brunner-Fisher Race to Test Party Factions

A problematic 2010 primary in the Buckeye State could complicate a top pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats, who face the very real prospect of a multicandidate bloodbath in the race to succeed retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R).

Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher (D) was initially viewed as the party’s leading candidate, but Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s (D) entrance into the race has created a competitive primary for Democrats. Fisher has the backing of popular Gov. Ted Strickland (D), as well as Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), but support from national women’s groups quickly buoyed Brunner’s candidacy last month.

“Pragmatically, I view this as a two-person race right now between Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner,— Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will likely face former Bush administration Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman (R), a popular former Congressman with $1.5 million leftover in his campaign account. With Portman waiting in the wings, local and national Democrats would like to avoid an expensive May 2010 primary.

“I do think it is unfortunate that we will have to spend so much in the primary, but it’s a fact of political life that I’m willing to accept,— Fisher said in an interview.

Fisher said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials told him they are staying out of the primary. But the committee could decide to wade into the contest at any time, pushing resources and staff toward a particular candidate.

Fisher is known in Ohio for being a prodigious fundraiser with a strong financial base in the Cleveland area. Brunner is not known for her fundraising abilities, with only one statewide race under her belt, but a strong showing on her first fundraising report could build momentum for her campaign.

EMILY’s List has yet to officially endorse Brunner but is likely to do so in the coming months. The group worked with Brunner on her 2006 statewide bid and has already sent staff to Ohio to consult with her.

“We have a good relationship with her,— EMILY’s List Political Director Jonathan Parker said. “We think she is a terrific candidate and a very determined candidate who is putting together her operation.—

Brunner’s campaign could not be reached for comment.

Ohio sources said Rep. Zack Space (D) is also considering a bid for Senate. Unlike Brunner and Fisher, Space can bide his time raising funds for re-election that could be transferred to a Senate account later in the cycle.

Ryan was also mentioned as a possible candidate but has since thrown his support to Fisher. Ryan has also made the top of the short list of candidates for lieutenant governor in 2010, a post that would be vacant with Fisher running for Senate.

While Brunner and Fisher are considered the top-tier contenders, they look likely to have company in the Democratic primary. Ohio state Rep Tyrone Yates (D) has formed an exploratory committee. Yates said in an interview that he has contacted the DSCC but has not heard back from the committee.

Other Democrats looking at the Senate race include Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune and businessman Chris Celeste, who is the son of former Gov. Dick Celeste (D).

According to one Ohio Democratic operative, several poorly funded black candidates, such as Yates or Lawson Jones, could cut into Fisher’s base. Cleveland-based candidates, such as Lawson Jones or Celeste, would also do damage to Fisher.

Brunner is most well-known in the Columbus media market because of state government and her work in election law in Franklin County. If another candidate from central Ohio announces a bid, Brunner could take a hit in the primary.

A key turning point could come in January, when candidates can begin to apply for the state party’s endorsement. The state party’s executive committee can chose to endorse more than one candidate or none.

“If you would look at the executive committee, it would be very split on who wants whom on the endorsement,— Redfern said.

The race will also prove to be a test of political strength for Strickland, who was quick to support Fisher. Strickland has shown he is not afraid to go all out for a candidate, backing then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Democratic presidential primary last March.

Fisher said Strickland has advised him, made calls on his behalf and headlined several fundraisers for his candidacy. Fisher added that the governor will play an even larger role in his campaign after April 1.

“I think it’s fair to say when we get up and running and start a full-time campaign, I know he’ll be with me quite often,— Fisher said.

Whoever wins the Democratic nod will likely face Portman, the favorite candidate of state and national Republicans, in the general election. He could face a primary against state Auditor Mary Taylor (R), but she has not made any official moves toward forming a campaign.

Portman campaign manager Bob Paduchik said their plan is to “raise as much money as we can— to run against the Democratic nominee. He added that the GOP would be ready to take on either Fisher or Brunner because they see both as having flaws.

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