Can a heated race for Senate stay civil till Election Day?

The Hot Seat 

Can a heated race for Senate stay civil till Election Day?

The "Courage Express" is actually just a 19-year-old retired bus from the Licking County School District. With its worn-out odometer and fresh coat of silvery paint, it's now a road-weary campaigning machine that supporters of Jennifer Brunner bought online for $2,000. In some ways, the Express mirrors Brunner's run for U.S. Senate: It's a low-budget, bumpy ride that just might be on its last legs. But it's still rolling.

Not exactly the wheels you'd associate with one of Ohio's most powerful Democrats, but for Brunner, this is the reality of running for U.S. Senate on a political pauper's budget. Ohio's Secretary of State, Brunner doesn't seem fazed by the condition of her bus or her campaign, even as she and her staff bounce and shift in their seats as they rumble through Greater Cleveland on a mid-April visit.

After hours of stumping, Brunner, 53, still manages to chat amiably with reporters about family, the woeful state of journalism, politics, and her mission to become Ohio's first female senator. She seems distracted only by her need to keep a Diet Coke upright each time the bus finds one of the countless potholes that polka-dot the early spring streets. There's no suited staff member hanging over her shoulder, and only one request to go off the record — on a matter unrelated to Lee Fisher, her fellow Democratic opponent in the May 4 primary.

The two candidates seek a sweet prize: a rare vacant Senate seat in a major swing state, made available thanks to Republican George Voinovich's decision not to seek reelection. For Democrats looking to bolster their numbers in Washington, this is — to quote Joe Biden — a big #$%&@ deal.

While Brunner claws for any attention she can get, relying heavily on the efforts of volunteer groups, Fisher enjoys the backing of Ohio's Democratic establishment, the state's major newspapers, and donors with the deepest pockets. The old-guard liberal from Shaker Heights seems less concerned with shaking every hand and kissing every baby in the final days of the 14-month race. His handlers could not shake him loose for an interview with Scene for this story, and he did not reply to e-mailed questions before deadline.

The one key vote of support neither Fisher nor Brunner secured was that of the Ohio Democratic Party, which declined to endorse either candidate in the wake of pressure from both sides. The move speaks volumes about the contentiousness of the highest-profile race on the ballot.

Whoever wins the primary will face a formidable and well-funded candidate in Cincinnati Republican Rob Portman, a U.S. Congressman and former member of President George W. Bush's cabinet. He is a squeaky-clean, free-market Republican, beloved by his base and who doesn't carry the same kind of baggage typical of other Bush appointees.

The pivotal issue will be jobs, observers say, and Fisher — perhaps looking past Brunner — has taken the offensive. "Congressman Portman is the ultimate Washington insider," Fisher told the audience at a City Club of Cleveland debate last week at the downtown Marriott. "He spent two decades in Washington, D.C. He just didn't vote for George W. Bush's crazy economic policies and regulations that got us in the recession . . . he was holding the shovel as we were digging into this recession."

OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN

Despite their differing approaches and the stark contrast in their war chests — Fisher raised an estimated $3.45 million through 2009 to Brunner's $677,658 — polls show that the seat remains up for grabs. Voters face a choice between the polished, measured, more moderate Fisher and the personable, detail-oriented — and staunchly liberal — Brunner.

Asked whether there's room for her kind in Washington today, Brunner offers as evidence her own personal hero: the late Ted Kennedy. "He took a lot of jeers and negativity, but he never gave up," says Brunner. Brunner, like Kennedy, says she will hold fast to her progressive principles, while leaving room to be collegial with those who see things otherwise.

Fisher, meanwhile, has had his eyes on Voinovich's Senate seat since before Voinovich revealed he would step aside. But despite all the support thrown Fisher's way, his presumed coronation as the Democratic contender was scrapped in February 2009 when Brunner announced her candidacy on a YouTube clip. In response, Fisher hastily assembled a press conference to declare his candidacy that same day. Governor Ted Strickland and House Speaker Armond Budish stood by Fisher's side, and key Democratic politicians across the state have dutifully fallen in line. So have wealthy contributors: First Energy President/CEO Anthony Alexander, Eaton Corp. President/CEO Sandy Cutler, and Forest City head Charles Ratner. Indians owner Larry Dolan, developer Jeff Jacobs, and Norma Lerner (widow of late Browns owner Al Lerner) also threw their support behind Fisher.

Given the comparative dearth of dollars, Brunner has tried to capitalize on what she calls a "new paradigm" for campaigning: small-dollar online contributions and grassroots support from the bottom up. "Many of these people will be the next people in office," she says of her phalanx of mostly young volunteers. Brunner's use of the iconic World War II image of Rosie the Riveter, she believes, helps her connect with women, for whom she views herself as a champion. It may also be a nod to the supporters who helped strip down the old school bus and rebuild it as the Courage Express.

The bus itself is a campaign statement in a race that has caused little fervor among those not wed to Democratic politics. Herb Asher, a political-science professor at the Ohio State University, says Fisher and Brunner have stirred minimal excitement in their campaigns — and left many voters knowing little about either candidate. In the words of Akron Beacon Journal writer Dennis J. Willard: "Reporters who have covered Fisher for more than 20 years are almost hard pressed to define him."

He is a consummate political insider with almost 30 years of experience. Now 58, Fisher won his first office — in the Ohio House of Representatives — at 29. He was sworn in as the state's attorney general in 1991 and ousted by Betty Montgomery four years later. He made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1998 and returned to work in Cleveland as the head of the nonprofit Center for Families and Children. But Fisher returned to the state scene when Strickland tapped him as his running mate in 2006.

Throughout this campaign, Fisher has gone out of his way to paint himself as a Washington outsider. In addition to being lieutenant governor, he served as Ohio's development director until launching his Senate campaign in February 2009. He has deflected criticism about his record in that role — that he resigned without having accomplished much — and blames federal policies for a jobless rate that increased when he and Strickland took office. "When you have federal policies that undermine what you are doing on the state level, you've got an obligation and a responsibility to try to change those policies," Fisher said during the City Club debate last week.

At a campaign event with Brunner two weeks ago in Cleveland, he sauntered into a West Side church a bit late, shook hands, passed out business cards, and left before the event wound down. His image seems fashioned in part by a press crew eager to screen questions and tell reporters what should or shouldn't be printed. During the City Club debate, Fisher's handlers contested Brunner's every statement in real-time e-mail blasts to reporters.

LATE-RACE TENSIONS RISE

Though the campaign has remained civil, tensions have emerged in recent weeks. Brunner blames Fisher for her lack of funding, saying that his allies have intimidated potential donors against supporting her. (One Cleveland-area Democratic leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Fisher's supporters have threatened to make "pariahs" out of those who openly support Brunner with money.)

But the Fisher campaign — incensed that Brunner's accusations have gone public — insist this is untrue, citing Brunner's refusal to elaborate on her claims. Indeed, she declined to name names when asked about her accusations at the debate last week.

Asher notes that Brunner may be trying to turn a perceived weakness into a weapon — especially given the media's focus on fundraising. "It's a standard campaign tactic that might be going on here," he says. "It's the same kind of thing as when a candidate goes negative and accuses the other — and [the accusation] might be true — and then what does the candidate under attack do? He accuses his or her opponent of going negative."

The Fisher campaign launched a counter-attack, questioning Brunner's credibility by saying she accepted campaign money from contributors from banks aided by the federal bailout — despite an earlier pledge that she would not. Brunner told The Columbus Dispatch that the combined $500 contributions were "two small donations from bank employees." Fisher, on the other hand, has received thousands of dollars from individuals linked to bailed-out banks, according to campaign finance records.

Though Brunner earned widespread acclaim for smoothing out Election Day kinks that made Ohio a national punch line in 2000 and 2004, she recently has been accused of playing partisan politics over election law. The most recent charge centers on her requirement that voters planning to switch parties for the May primary must sign an affidavit to do so.

Brunner says she is merely following the letter of the law, in part out of concern that the 2008 elections were marred by too much "gaming" — insincere changes in party alliance merely to affect primary outcomes. But critics have said she is asking for the enforcement of a law that she has previously called unenforceable, attempting to undermine her reputation as a fair, impartial election overseer.

When asked why she's running for Senate, Brunner says only that the time was right to seek higher office. But she believes some within the party wanted her to stay put as secretary of state because she sits on the state apportionment board, which will redraw legislative district boundaries next year.

She had a well-documented run-in with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Bob Menendez, whom she claims tried to strong-arm her into withdrawing from the race late in 2009. With a hint of relish, she retells that story to reporters on the bus and repeats her answer to Menendez's supposed threat to squeeze her out: "The women of Ohio will never forgive you."

Catherine Turcer, director of Money in Politics, a Columbus-based nonprofit that studies how dollars affect campaigns and policy, says tactics to shut down opponents' funding happen more often than not — especially when one candidate goes against the party grain. In Brunner's case, some of the party maneuvering could be interpreted as sexism against a stubborn, powerful female, says Turcer.

"She's a woman, and she hasn't been a good little soldier."

dguevara@clevescene.com

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