Rounding page 80 in “Dark Money” — investigative journalist Jane Mayer’s exposé on how billionaires influence American politics — Ted Strickland became justifiably concerned.
“It’s very disturbing,” said the former Ohio governor and U.S. Senate candidate.
Perhaps the reason is that his campaign coffers look empty next to the bank accounts of his opponent, Sen. Rob Portman, and the outside groups that plan to wage war on behalf of the two men.
He has 3.3 million reasons to fret over Mayer’s book: One for every dollar spent against him already by Super PACs funded by Charles Koch, a billionaire whose political activity and family business — the second-largest privately held firm in America — are the subject of Mayer’s work.
Along with refining hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each day, Koch and his donor network represent some of the heaviest hitters in the coal industry at a time when Democrats are pushing cleaner fuel options.
Strickland is a former Congressman from the southern tip of Ohio, whose former district has been transformed from coal-mining country into the nation’s latest oil and gas play. Strickland’s last job, though, was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for green energy, an issue he supported when running the state.
An Ohio free-for-all
The independent groups lining up on one side or the other in this senate race have no rules of propriety.
They are crafting mostly negative political advertisements that speak louder than the candidates, who cannot control them.
Strickland has condemned the outsized, antagonistic tone pushed by outside groups.
Portman, with more cash on hand than any Republican candidate for Congress, can only hope the $18 million he’s raised will pierce through the thick messaging of billionaire-backed outside groups.
There’s a double standard in campaign finance law that holds candidates and political parties accountable yet allows private outside groups to collect and spend with little transparency.
With a bit of maneuvering, so-called super PACs or other nonprofits can turn limitless contributions into attack ads that tear down a candidate without saying who they support.
Meanwhile, individuals are limited in what they can give directly to candidates, who must slap their names on ads, even the negative ones that risk voter backlash.
Requiring candidates to endorse ads, explained Strickland, prevents falsehoods and misleading attacks. And research shows letting outside groups do the dirty work diverts the voter anger to amorphous super PACs and non-profits, whose funders and staff hide behind the shadows of patriotic names containing the words freedom, future, justice, new day and strength.
“They can say pretty much what they want to without taking ownership,” said Strickland, who remembers a Congress that legislated despite ideological differences. “I think things have changed, and part of it is due to this [campaign] finance system we have.”
A dog fight
The Portman-Strickland contest got ugly early.
Even Strickland’s primary race was the most expensive in America, largely due to outside super PACs trying to take him out before he could go head-to-head with Portman in the General Election.
Since then, he and Portman have called each other names, exaggerated claims on jobs and the economy, mocked each other and launched satirical websites.
Outside groups got involved even earlier.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which aims to expand Republican control of the Senate, paraded a tire-shaped mascot named “Retread Ted” to several of Strickland’s public appearances.
In response to the rubbery characterization, the former governor’s campaign coined Portman “Beltway Rob” — a tribute to the senator’s decades working along the Potomac River.
Strickland, who said in an interview that he knows Portman “pretty well” and called him a “good human being,” has used more divisive terms in public, referring to Portman as China’s best senator — a reference to his support of international trade deals — and suggesting the Republican has “baby butt-soft hands.”
Portman, meanwhile, said, “I’ve always tried to treat him with respect,” while a campaign staffer leaned in to reiterate some of the nastier things Strickland has said.
Buckeye prize fight
With a third of the U.S. Senate seats up for election, the Ohio race matters more than most.
Democrats controlled the chamber for 10 years before losing it in the 2014 mid-term elections on the wave of massive outside spending and anti-Obama sentiment.
The GOP now holds a tenuous four-seat majority, and Portman is one of six Republicans considered at-risk of being unseated, according to the Washington D.C.-based Cook Report, which also figures Democratic incumbent Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada to be in play.
Strickland and Portman come from different backgrounds that play a role in the campaign messaging.
Portman hails from the Cincinnati area where family members were entrepreneurs. He graduated from private school, attended Dartmouth and the University of Michigan law school. He worked in both Bush administrations and served six terms in Congress from the Cincinnati area.
Strickland grew up in the hills of southern Ohio, attended public schools, the Asbury College and Theological Seminar and has a doctorate in psychological counseling from the University of Kentucky. He was a prison psychologist and administrator of a Methodist children’s home before serving six terms in Congress representing Ohio’s Appalachia.
Strickland weathered the Great Recession during his first term as governor, narrowly losing re-election to John Kasich in 2010. Portman, while maintaining a clean image, jeopardized his conservative base when he changed his position on same-sex marriage.
Now, with Donald Trump potentially leading the Republican ticket in a state that swings precariously between parties, the race has taken on immense meaning — and money.
“We’re considered one of the most expensive states in the country though we’re not the biggest state geographically or by population,” Portman said. “And with the presidential campaign, I’m told I can expect [ad] rates to go up even more because there will be so much interest in Ohio on the presidential level.”
Coal magnates, the NRA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party are easily on pace to spend more on Portman’s behalf than he’ll ever raise, especially because those groups can accept any size check from corporations and individuals.
With the average donor giving Portman’s campaign $820, it would take 3,659 more individuals to match the $3 million Charles Koch alone has contributed to attack Strickland already — and Koch and friends have six more months to continue giving.
Even then, the Portman campaign has seven times more cash on hand than Strickland’s.
Portman isn’t as worried that he’ll be outspent by his opponent or even the pro-environmental groups who call him a polluter — “which is kind of frustrating because I’m a green Republican,” he laughed.
Portman’s greater fear is that he must get on the phone with donors to muster even more cash to get his voice heard amid a presidential campaign that will spend billions — not millions — in Ohio, Florida and other swing states.
“It will be on every TV set and every online ad opportunity in Ohio,” Portman predicted of the presidential ads. “That’s my bigger concern, frankly, is how do you break through with a positive message.”