Early in his term, Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich was considered the most unpopular governor in the country. Between that and a sputtering state economy, a second term looked like a dicey proposition.
But Kasich's standing has recovered over the past two years and the latest polling indicates his Democratic opponent Ed FitzGerald remains largely unknown.
It's early in the election season — Ohio's primary isn't until May — but FitzGerald is struggling to find the issue with which he can convince people to turn Kasich out.
"All the polling shows that people are looking for an alternative," says FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive. "He's like a product people have lined up to make a return."
FitzGerald, however, hasn't yet made the case that he's the right alternative. That's reflected in his fundraising, which is running well behind Kasich's, despite big investments from the Ohio Democratic Party.
"If Kasich were perceived as highly vulnerable, that would obviously help FitzGerald's fundraising a great deal," says former GOP Gov. Bob Taft. "I don't think Kasich is perceived as that vulnerable."
Bragging On The Economy
Kasich can plausibly make the claim all politicians like to make — that things have gotten better on his watch.
Kasich inherited an $8 billion budget shortfall, and now the state is running a surplus and talking about another round of income tax cuts. Ohio lost nearly 400,000 jobs in the four years before he took office, and has gained 140,000 jobs since.
"What he inherited, to say that Ohio was a state that was struggling is an understatement," says Connie Wehrkamp, Kasich's campaign spokeswoman.
State unemployment fell to a post-recession low in January. In fact, new figures released earlier this month showed that the state gained twice as many jobs last year (51,000) than had been previously counted.
Numbers like these have brought Kasich's approval ratings up and given the once-struggling governor a slim but consistent lead.There's already speculation that Kasich will not only win, but turn around and mount a run for president.
"The economy's not soaring, but it's doing okay," Taft says. "It's a lot better than when Kasich took office."
Making Himself Known
FitzGerald says that most of the new jobs don't pay very well and only a "small group" have truly prospered under Kasich's leadership. And it's true that Ohio's unemployment rate, which was below the national average in 2012, is now a little worse.
"You still have a lot of people who are struggling," says Chris Seelbach, a Democratic member of the Cincinnati city council.
That may give FitzGerald an opening, but he's got to sell himself first. The same Quinnipiac University poll last month that showed FitzGerald close behind Kasich also showed that 70 percent of Ohioans didn't know enough about him to form an opinion.
FitzGerald has gotten high marks for his work in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, reshaping a county government that was the subject of a 2008 FBI corruption investigation, which has led to dozens of convictions.
FitzGerald is a former FBI agent himself, but looking good in Cleveland is not necessarily enough to make him shine in the rest of the state. Because Ohio is so large — Cincinnati is much closer to Indianapolis and Louisville than it is to Cleveland — candidates for statewide office often have to run once and lose, just to make themselves known.
And FitzGerald stumbled out of the gate. His first running mate, state Sen. Eric Kearney, had tax problems. FitzGerald stuck by him longer than many in his own party thought wise.
"That lieutenant governor mishap definitely hurt him, that's a fact," Seelbach says.
The Case Against Kasich
FitzGerald picked as his new running mate Sharon Neustadt, a Dayton-area attorney who has sat on a local Planned Parenthood board. A change in state law threatens to put half of Ohio's abortion clinics out of business. He notes that under Kasich, it's not just women's reproductive rights that have been weakened, but voting rights as well.
FitzGerald says the governor has been more stealthy about these "extreme things" than he was about pursuing an unpopular anti-union law enacted during his first year in office, which voters quickly repealed. But FitzGerald says people simply don't agree with these policies, which is prompting buyer's remorse.
"All of those touch somebody, in different ways, but not in a good way," says Joe Schiavoni, Democratic leader of the state Senate.
While all of these issues — jobs, inequality, abortion rights — speak to the Democratic base, FitzGerald hasn't crystallized his argument about why Kasich needs to be turned out of office.
"One of the problems with the FitzGerald campaign is that it hasn't really homed in on a single message," says Vladimir Kogan, an Ohio State University political scientist. "Alternating among those, depending on what's in the news, takes away from the campaign."
Kasich is also hard to paint as someone who serves only the interests of the rich, since he's been attentive to education issues and is a rare Republican governor willing to embrace the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats are hopeful that FitzGerald's campaign can catch fire as voters start to pay more attention to the race, but they concede it may be difficult, given the incumbent's cash advantage.
"Nobody's going to win big in Ohio these days, but Kasich has a lead and he's obviously come back from some really bad numbers," says Peter Brown, a pollster with Quinnipiac. "He does have some things that are important, like a rather large advantage in money."