CLEVELAND - In his losing bid for re-election in 2010 Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland won Cuyahoga County over Republican challenger John Kasich by 102,640 votes.
Two years earlier, in 2008, President Barack Obama carried the county over John McCain by 258,442 votes.
If Strickland had been able to simply split the difference and carry the county with say 180,000 votes, he would have defeated Kasich and won re-election.
When Ed FitzGerald looks at the 2014 race for governor, as Cuyahoga County’s first elected executive, it has to be one of the numbers that jumps off the page at him.
The flip side of the argument of course is that Strickland was able to generate numbers in his native southeast Ohio and in other parts of the state that a Cuyahoga County Democrat would be tough to copy. (See former Democratic Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan who, in 2002, ran against incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Taft. Though Hagan bested the Strickland margin of victory in Cuyahoga County, he lost to Taft statewide by a 3-to-2 margin.)
That being said, FitzGerald sees opportunity in the race ahead, which he’ll laid out in announcing his candidacy Wednesday in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
FitzGerald, 44, is the state’s second most powerful elected executive behind Gov. Kasich. He is a former special agent with the FBI and mayor of Lakewood. Though he opposed the charter change effort to create the position of county executive, he won the Democratic nomination for the post and easily beat Republican challenger Matt Dolan in 2010.
The challenges he faces in his first statewide race are numerous with the first being the power of incumbency. In the last half century, only two sitting Ohio governors have lost re-election bids: Strickland in 2010 and Gov. John Gilligan in 1974. Both Democrats.
For the last Republican governor to lose re-election, you’d have to go back to 1958 when C. William O’Neill lost to Democrat Michael DiSalle.
"It’s very difficult to unseat any incumbent,” said NewsChannel5 Political Analyst Dr. Tom Sutton. “Typically, it happens when you are very popular as a statewide office holder already or there's something that's tarnishing the incumbent, either a scandal or low levels of popularity.
“I don't think either is the case with Governor Kasich and so this is going to be a really tough battle for any Democrat to try to unseat him in 2014," Sutton said.
The other problem he’ll face, he admits, is name recognition. His rise to the top of the party ticket came after better known Ohio Democrats like Strickland, Rep. Tim Ryan, Former Rep. Betty Sutton and former Attorney General Richard Cordray all opted not to run.
Never having run statewide, he began the process of visiting many of the state’s 88 counties over the last few months looking to make himself known among Democratic leaders whose support he will need in driving people to the polls.
“I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge, he needs name recognition and he needs to give voters a reason to pick an alternative,” Sutton said.
“Because we still are a state that tends to swing both ways, tends to have a lot of Independents and if we’re in a decent economy, with a relatively low unemployment rate, no major scandals, a fiscally sound budget, really it doesn’t give FitzGerald much to challenge Governor Kasich on.”
He also faces a unique home court challenge from Kasich when it comes to Cuyahoga County. On the day after winning the election in 2010, Kasich first act as governor-elect was to drive up to Cleveland and meet with American Greetings management in Brooklyn about convincing the greeting card giant to stay in Ohio.
He has since logged more visits to the region and worked to forge deeper relationships among many of the elected leaders, including Democrats, than arguably any Republican governor in recent history. So Kasich will be conceding nothing on FitzGerald’s home field advantage.
Where FitzGerald may look for inspiration is back in his hometown of Lakewood, to a man whose father served in FitzGerald’s old post of mayor there from 1956 to 1963; a man who once himself represented part of the city in the Ohio House back in the early 1970s and that is Democrat Dick Celeste.
In 1978, Celeste did what FitzGerald is about to, attempt to unseat a sitting governor. In his case, it was Republican James Rhodes.
Celeste would come very close to doing that, losing the race by only 47,536 votes, the closest margin of victory in a race for Ohio governor in the last 65 years.
That showing positioned him to emerge four years later as the front runner for the post when the retiring Rhodes left office. Celeste would go on to win the governor’s seat in 1982 and again in 1986.
“He clearly has his eyes on higher office and he’s young,” said Sutton of FitzGerald. “So to run now, to run again in four years when Kasich has to leave for term limits sets him up in 2018 to really try for it. By then, he will have established the network, the fundraising and really