When Richard Cordray announced his run for Ohio governor back in December, he was considered such a formidable candidate that two Democrats promptly dropped out of the race, while a third joined Cordray's campaign as his running mate. "One of Cordray's biggest strengths was his ability to clear the field," says David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.
But Cordray's path to next Tuesday's primary has not been a cakewalk. The former state attorney general is trying to beat back a spirited challenge from Dennis Kucinich, a former member of Congress and presidential candidate who is running to Cordray's left and who has repeatedly claimed that his rival should be running as a Republican instead.
The race has drawn attention from national media outlets because, as with other contests this primary season, it pits so-called establishment candidates against more progressive populists. "In many cases, establishment candidates and incumbents are being pulled to the left by an energized party base and surprisingly strong liberal challengers," David Weigel recently wrote in The Washington Post.
In New York, for instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a highly publicized challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon. And in Georgia, Stacey Abrams -- the more liberal of the "two Staceys" running in the May 22 gubernatorial primary -- is polling ahead of rival Stacey Evans.
The recent media narrative that plays up the battle between moderates and liberals has been overblown, argues Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. He recalls that similar stories were spun last year in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, the establishment candidate won, uniting the party behind him and winning handily in November.
"People are spending a lot of time trying to make the current Democratic Party into the 2016 Democratic Party, and that's just not the case," he says, alluding to the drawn-out primary battle between the more progressive candidate, Bernie Sanders, and the establishment's eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. "It's very rare to see that level of animosity play out in 2018."
There's nothing new about candidates attacking each other in primaries, where the electorate tends to be skewed toward a party's most loyal and ardent voters. On the Republican side in Ohio, the race between state Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor has become increasingly competitive and contentious, with Taylor assailing DeWine for not being sufficiently loyal to President Trump.
For their part, Democrats are engaged in a debate amongst themselves over whether stalwartly "resisting" Trump -- or even calling for his impeachment -- is a better strategy than presenting candidates who can appeal to general election voters and, by winning, actually provide some balance against the president.
Four years ago, Cuomo beat back a challenge from Zephyr Teachout, an underfunded law professor who nonetheless took just over a third of the primary vote. The final result may not have been close, but Teachout performed better than any challenger had against a sitting governor since New York first instituted gubernatorial primaries.
Although she can't match his fundraising, Nixon has the potential to put a bigger scare into Cuomo than Teachout did, says Doug Muzzio, a pollster at Baruch College. Last month, Nixon won the endorsement of the progressive third party Working Families, meaning she'll not only challenge Cuomo in the September primary, but likely remain on the ballot in November.
Cuomo, who was an early supporter of same-sex marriage rights, has also tightened gun restrictions, raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour and created the nation's first program to offer free tuition for four years of college. Nonetheless, progressives distrust him, viewing him as a reluctant convert to many of their causes and decrying his alliance with a rump group of Democrats who for years kept the GOP in control of the state Senate.
"Objectively, the man has governed as a left-of-center governor," Muzzio says. "Ask someone from a deep-red state and they'll say he's a radical, liberal bomb-throwing Bolshevik. He hasn't done everything progressives want because he has responsibilities, financial and political, that they don't have."
It's a different story in Georgia, where the more liberal candidate seems likely to win the nomination. The advantage enjoyed by former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams may have more to do with race than ideological differences, suggests University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. Evans, also a former state representative, is white and Abrams is black.
Black voters cast a majority of the ballots in the 2014 Democratic primary, with black women making up a disproportionate share. "It's going to be very hard, with a black female running, to get black women to vote for a white candidate," says Bullock.
Evans has been arguing she would be more electable in the fall because she would have greater appeal to blue-collar Democrats and the potential to make inroads with Republicans unhappy with Trump's performance. Other recent Georgia Democratic nominees have made a similar pitch and lost in the general election.
For her part, Abrams has maintained all year that for Democrats to take back the governorship, they need to register and turn out more minority voters. It looks like she'll have the chance to test that theory.
A similar argument is playing out in Ohio, where Cordray supporters say he'd fare much better than Kucinich in the fall. Cordray left his post as head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to run for governor. He's been focused largely on economic issues, and has the backing of the AFL-CIO and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who initially conceived the CFPB.
"Here's the irony: Cordray literally spent years fighting big banks and being the embodiment of what the Sanders voters would want to see happen," says Niven, the Cincinnati professor. "But Cordray brings all the energy of a tax accountant to the message, and it does represent a vulnerability for him. He doesn't breathe the fire and brimstone, so a lot of those voters are drawn to Kucinich."
But Kucinich has his flaws as well. He's drawn progressive support because he was ahead of the pack on issues such as universal health care, free tuition and skepticism about trade. He also proudly wears a lapel pin displaying his "F" rating from the National Rifle Association, while Cordray has refused to call for an assault weapons ban. But Kucinich, a former Fox News contributor, has said kind things about Trump, met with Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad last year and accepted a $20,000 speaking fee from a group associated with the regime. "Could Democrat who defends Trump, sees UFOs, meets with dictators win in Ohio?" wondered a Cincinnati Enquirer headline in March.
"To Cordray's benefit, the Sanders stand-in in this race is Dennis Kucinich, a deeply flawed candidate with all kinds of upside-down alliances," Niven says.
If Cordray were scared, he would be running ads attacking Kucinich, argues Kyle Kondik, author of The Bellwether, a 2016 book about Ohio politics. That hasn't happened. His advantages in fundraising and organization could help him win over the large number of voters across the sprawling state who declared themselves undecided in polls.
Candidates like Cordray who focus on economic messages are sometimes tarred as "establishment," but they have a pretty good record in intraparty fighting, says David de la Fuente, a political analyst for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "We've seen time and again, in primary, general and special elections since the presidential election, that they are the ones that can actually win in tough places."
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