Democrats are looking to November for an opportunity to re-stake their claim to the Midwest after President Donald Trump painted it red in 2016. But first, they need to figure out who — and what — they want to put forward.
Ohio’s primary on Tuesday is the party’s first test along that road, with former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray and former Rep. Dennis Kucinich brandishing different brands of populism before Democratic voters, as well as different theories about how to win the swing state, where GOP Gov. John Kasich is term-limited.
Cordray has plenty of establishment backing, but his consumer-watchdog brand and support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) appeals to the party’s progressive wing. But Kucinich, backed by the Bernie Sanders-aligned nonprofit Our Revolution and several key 2016 allies of Sanders (though not Sanders himself), is betting his longtime support for single-payer health care and other progressive priorities can galvanize not only primary voters but an unsettled general electorate featuring a swath of Democratic-turned-Trump voters.
Cordray has led in sparse public polls of the primary, but Kucinich has still lurked within striking distance after a months-long stylistic debate about whether Democrats need an outspoken firebrand or a more pragmatic progressive to win Ohio. It could be a preview of Democratic primary contests to come in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — and elsewhere around the country — as the party seeks to rebuild in the states.
"This is obviously a really important moment for Democrats in Ohio. We think we have a prime opportunity to take back the state. That's why for us it was very important to have a primary that was wide open," Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said. "I think we're seeking a wide open debate on the issues. The good thing is that's actually what we've gotten."
Ken Zinn, the political director for the National Nurses United union, pointed to Kucinich’s longtime support for single-payer health care as the key reason the union is supporting the former congressman over Cordray.
Cordray “completed our questionnaire and he doesn’t support single-payer and Medicare for all,” Zinn said. “So that’s one reason why there’s a clear difference between the two candidates on that issue.”
Kucinich has also attacked Cordray on guns. But Cordray has progressive bona fides of his own, especially his tenure at the CFPB, which he has touted as time spent looking after the voters’ core issue: their wallets. And Cordray has attacked Kucinich for praising Trump, criticizing former President Barack Obama and taking money from a group sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Kucinich said in late April that he would return the money.)
And looming above all, there is the electability question. Kucinich’s backers say the traditional idea of who can win a swing state like Ohio has been shattered in recent years, but Cordray still has a chorus of supporters who say a Kucinich type can’t win in November.
“Adamant progressives are certainly a part of our party, and give energy to our party. Numerically, they're not enough to carry statewide elections,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Cordray last week. “Just not. And probably not enough to carry most congressional districts. A Bernie Sanders or Dennis Kucinich would have lost in the district that Conor Lamb won” in the March special House election.
Kucinich “comes from a corner of the wing of the party that isn't just universally progressive,” said Democratic strategist Dan Kanninen, a veteran of Midwestern campaigns. “He's got some interesting ideas that probably don't line up well either in the primary context or the general election context in a state like Ohio.”
"I think Kucinich has probably done a decent job as far as trying to get grassroots support but beyond that I don't know what more he's done," said Tom Bevan, the chairman of the Summit County Democratic Party. Bevan said he's backing Cordray. "I think there's a feeling that Cordray has a better chance in the general election."
But Nina Turner, the president of Our Revolution and a former Ohio legislator, said that the country is "certainly moving further and further to the left" and that a national debate over topics like Medicare for all and trade and wage equality is tilting the playing field toward bolder candidates.
Kucinich “can win the general election just as well as anybody else,” said Turner.
That disagreement is set to play out in additional primaries throughout the Midwest this summer.
“I think we have an excellent chance to win back the governorship of Michigan and we have a good progressive candidate that's not too far to the extreme in Gretchen Whitmer,” Rendell said. “I think Wisconsin we have a chance to beat Walker. And in Ohio we have a chance to win back the governorship.”
Turner on Saturday went to Michigan to rally for one of Whitmer’s primary opponents, Abdul El-Sayed — a progressive physician popular with Sanders backers.