It might not be obvious to those outside Ohio why Republicans would feel the need to go after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald. Kasich has a comfortable 8.3 percentage point lead, according to TPM’s PollTracker. He tries to avoid talking about FitzGerald if possible and is running a largely positive ad campaign.
So why was the Republican Governors Association digging up the dirt on FitzGerald’s late-night 2012 car incident with a woman who was not his wife? It probably wasn’t to defeat FitzGerald in 2014. That already looks likely. Their goal might instead have been to bury the rising Democratic star for good.
Kasich was always going to be difficult to beat as Ohio’s economy slowly but surely rebounded and he tacked toward the center on issues like Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion after the uproar over his anti-union push shortly after taking office in 2011.
But for a relatively unknown but ambitious politician like FitzGerald, who had spent a successful term as the Cuyahoga County executive after a corruption-busting stint at the FBI, there would still be upside to challenging a formidable incumbent. He would get the chance to build up his name recognition across the state and develop relationships outside of the Cleveland area. That is a big key for any politician looking to break out of the frequently regionalized Ohio political spheres.
Democrats endorsing and stumping for FitzGerald, who is 46, have been effusive. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman called him “Kennedyesque.” Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz referred to him as one of the party’s “rising stars.”
“Frankly I think he’s a leader of a new generation that’s coming up in our party,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said while stumping for FitzGerald.
So if he ran a good race in 2014, the thinking goes, FitzGerald would have the first shot and a better chance to replace Kasich in 2018 (or 2016, if the governor caught the presidential or vice presidential bug) or vie for another major statewide office. “He’s out there on the statewide stage. He’s got his name out there,” University of Dayton political scientist Grant Neely told TPM on Tuesday. “He’d probably the Democrat that people would look to.”
But that comes with one condition, Neeley added: “As long as he doesn’t get completely trounced.”
In that context, the traffic-stop scandal — pretty transparently planted by Republican opposition researchers — makes more sense. It serves two purposes for Kasich. First, most importantly for him, a sizable 2014 win in a swing state is going to be an asset if Kasich does have any aspirations for higher office.
But, beyond his own legacy, Kasich blowing out FitzGerald and weakening the challenger for future races helps solidify the Republican Party’s standing in the state. Democrats don’t hold any other statewide offices and have an untested bench aside from well-liked retreads like former Gov. Ted Strickland. FitzGerald, the reformer with anti-corruption credentials, was one of their most appealing up-and-comers.
So Kasich’s campaign, as Neeley put it, is “obviously trying to win convincingly.”