Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has seized on gun control to propel his underdog gubernatorial campaign, worrying state Democrats that he has a real chance to win the primary — and damage his party’s chances in a key race.
Kucinich, a former presidential gadfly candidate who’s been one of Russia’s more prominent left-wing apologists in recent years, is giving a spirited challenge to former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), the candidate strongly preferred by most party leaders.
Kucinich has put Cordray on the defensive for his past “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and ongoing refusal to support an assault weapons ban.
While establishment Democrats think Cordray will likely prevail, they say not to count out Kucinich, who’s been running and often winning elections in the state’s biggest media market for more than four decades.
“There’s absolutely a chance Kucinich could win this,” state Rep. John Boccieri (D), a former congressman who served with Kucinich, told TPM.
Others agree, warning that Kucinich’s decades-long pugilistic battle against “the mighty and powerful” dating back to his rocky tenure as Cleveland’s boy mayor in the late ’70s closely reflects the current populist anti-establishment mood of the Democratic base in the state, and that the gun issue could help further propel his uphill campaign in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“It’s a mistake to take Dennis Kucinich lightly,” said former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-OH). “At the end of the day because of the perfect match of Cordray’s message, his resume and his money it’s his to lose. But Dennis is going to surprise some people in a significant way because of the mood of some Ohio Democrats. He can’t be as easily dismissed now as he has in the past.”
Cordray remains the odds-on favorite: He’s got the money, support from most of the party as well as the powerful AFL-CIO, a strong resume on economic populism and taking on Wall Street both in Ohio and Washington, and support from party heavy-hitters like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett. That’ll help him as he reintroduces himself across a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot in eight years and lets voters know about some of Kucinich’s more outlandish statements and actions since he left office after losing a gerrymandering-fueled primary to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in 2012. Cordray is raising huge sums for the race, and is expected to have a significant edge in TV advertising and a robust field operation as the campaign kicks into high gear in the coming days.
But recent public and private polling has found a toss-up race, with a high number of undecided voters. The election is just over a month away, on May 8, with early voting beginning in one week.
Ohio Democrats say a Kucinich win is unlikely – but concerning in a race they see as a top pickup opportunity this fall.
“Kucinich has enough of a record and enough eccentricities that nominating him would be a gift to [GOP front-runner] Mike DeWine. Republicans are giddy about that prospect,” said one top Democrat in the state.
Kucinich is buoyed by high name ID in his home region around Cleveland, the largest media market in the state for Democratic primary voters, and progressives’ fond if hazy memories of his early and vocal stances for universal health care and against the war in Iraq. He has the support of the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, headed by former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D). Cordray has some strong assets, including his fights for consumers both as state attorney general and treasurer and in the Obama administration, but remains largely undefined in a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot for eight years, when he lost reelection for state attorney general to DeWine.
On the one issue that’s been dominating the national and local Democratic conversation at the moment – gun control – Corday’s in a tough spot.
Cordray had a warm relationship with Ohio gun groups during his stint as the state’s attorney general, earning an “A” rating from the NRA and getting the endorsement of the Buckeye Firearms Association in his last two elections. Cordray successfully fought for Ohio’s right to overturn local gun control measures passed in Cleveland and Columbus, calling it “an important victory for every gun owner in Ohio.” He was one of just a handful of Democratic attorneys general to join Republicans in McDonald v. Chicago, a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded gun rights by finding the Second Amendment also applied to state and local governments. He also fought to help a local gun group hold an armed protest outside the state capitol.
In the wake of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year and the subsequent renewal of national focus on gun control, Kucinich saw an opening.
“Parkland has changed everything. It really has brought about a shift in public awareness about the omnipresent danger of assault weapons,” Kucinich told TPM. “If you want to carry the Democratic banner in a statewide election, that banner should not have an ‘A’ from NRA on it.”
Cordray has moved dramatically on gun control in this campaign: He’s now calling for universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. But he hasn’t been willing to call for an assault weapons ban, something Kucinich has hammered him for.
And Cordray’s own running mate hasn’t helped: Former Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH), publicly broke with him over the issue last week.
“He created an opening for Kucinich because of where he is on the hot-button issue for Democrats right now: gun violence,” said one Ohio Democratic strategist who wants to see Cordray prevail in the race. “Rich doesn’t have much name ID. He hasn’t run statewide since 2010 and even then it was down-ticket. And this gun stuff is hurting him. Democrats are frustrated with him on it.”
Cordray’s campaign fired back against Kucinich, accusing him of playing politics with the issue.
“Democrats should come together to find workable solutions to a problem as important as this — not turn it into a political football. It’s telling that Kucinich spent five years as a paid contributor on Fox News and didn’t once call for an assault weapons ban, and at one point even told Bill O’Reilly that gun control measures wouldn’t reduce violence,” Cordray campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement.
Kucinich told O’Reilly after the Sandy Hook massacre that Obama should put forth gun control proposals and Congress should “consider” them, but said that “All the gun laws you pass may not really reduce significantly the level of violence in our society.”
But those comments aren’t likely to be nearly as damning as some of his other remarks made on Fox and elsewhere over the past few years praising President Trump and dismissing any possibility of collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.
Kucinich called Trump’s inauguration speech “great” and a “message of unity,” and has been much less critical of Trump than most other Democrats – or than he’d been of President Obama, who he accused of committing a potentially “impeachable offense” for bombing Libya without congressional approval in 2011. He later called for a primary challenger against Obama in 2012.
He’s also repeatedly dismissed the Russia investigation.
“Enough of the BS about #Russia stealing the election. This is CIA & State Dept propaganda trying to legitimatize their increased hostilities towards Russia,” he wrote in a December 2016 Facebook post.
Kucinich hasn’t backed away from that view, accusing the “military-industrial intel axis” of unfairly targeting then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to damage the U.S.-Russia relationship, claiming the “deep state” is after the president, and calling Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian-American diplomat a “bunch of nothing.”
He repeatedly refused to tell TPM whether he thought the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election.
“The people I’ve talked to across Ohio, they’re more worried about Moscow, Ohio than Moscow, Russia,” he said dismissively.
Kucinich dodged one follow-up question: “We shouldn’t be meddling in any country’s elections and no country should be meddling in ours.”
When pressed further, he said he thought Russian citizens may have meddled, but refused to accept the widely held view of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russian government was behind attacks on the Democratic Party and American democracy.
“Um, did Russians, Russians, people of Russian nationality, attempt to meddle? That appears to be the case. Beyond that, the investigation is continuing. If I was working on this on a daily basis in Washington I’d probably be able to give you a better assessment. But I will say it’s not an issue in this election, and the Cordray campaign’s attempt to make this an issue just shows how stupidly out of touch they are,” he said.
That fits in with Kucinich’s overarching views for the past decade. A co-founder of the Congressional Russia Caucus, which sought closer relations with the country, Kucinich forcefully defended Russia’s 2013 invasion of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine in a series of interviews with Fox News and Russian state media outlet Sputnik, while blaming American and NATO meddling in the country for the situation. He’s also repeatedly met with and defended Russia-backed Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Cordray’s allies made it clear that he’ll go after Kucinich’s strange defense of Russia and Trump — with paid media, if necessary.
“The fact that he’s so closely associated with Fox News, has praised Donald Trump, that’s a problem for him in the Democratic Primary. The closer he’d get to being a serious threat, the more those things will become aware to more people,” Ohio state Rep. David Leland (D), a former state party chairman who supports Cordray, told TPM. “If it becomes something that needs to be talked about, I guarantee it will be.”
But Ohio Democrats say Kucinich shouldn’t be dismissed. And most say he’d be a disaster as the party’s standard-bearer.
“Everyone on the ticket would be concerned about Dennis as the nominee. He’d be a very problematic candidate,” said one unaligned Ohio Democrat. “People in Ohio, like other parts of the country, are feeling pretty good about our prospects for this November. But every candidate who’s been working for a year-plus to win this fall would be concerned Kucinich could risk all of that.”