Democratic Senate candidate Lee Fisher faces a daunting 9-to-1 disadvantage in fundraising in his campaign against Republican Rob Portman in Ohio and has endured unexpected staff turnover, developments that have spread concern among national party leaders about his ability to remain competitive in the race.
Fisher, the state's lieutenant governor, recently hired his third campaign manager while his campaign spokesman and researcher quit. Sluggish fundraising has left him badly trailing Portman, a veteran of President George W. Bush's White House and Cabinet. The Republican reported almost $8.9 million in his campaign account at the end of June; Fisher had about $1.3 million available, but was carrying more than $110,000 in debt after a costly win in May's Democratic primary.
Ohio, one of Democrats' top chances to win a Republican-held seat, has become a headache for national party leaders who fear it could take millions just to get Fisher caught up with Portman. Privately, Democrats in Washington expressed frustration with Fisher's campaign operation, especially his hands-on management style, and even questioned whether President Barack Obama should spend more time in the state raising money for the Senate candidate.
Fisher skipped a campaign appearance with Obama in May. The Democrat joined Vice President Joe Biden at a fundraiser last month.
Publicly, Democrats insist Fisher has a shot at defeating Portman and win the seat vacated by Republican Sen. George Voinovich. Ohio is a swing state that Obama won two years ago and it would be part of any calculation for 2012.
"Lee will have the resources he needs to show Ohioans the clear choice they have: between Lee's work on the ground to create Ohio jobs and Congressman Portman's two decades in Washington supporting devastating trade policies that shipped Ohio jobs overseas," said Lynne Bowman, Fisher's campaign manager.
The Democratic Party's massive political machine in Ohio could help Fisher with $3 million raised during the last 40 days to help statewide candidates. Organized labor has long played a role in the state and has opened political offices in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. And Obama's political arm, Organizing for America, never truly shut down after the 2008 race and continues to communicate with supporters who helped Obama carry the state with 52 percent of the vote.
The state party, the largest in the nation, has more than 206 paid staffers working for Democrats. The Ohio Democratic Party has taken over the statewide voter turnout and political aspects of the campaigns, including Gov. Ted Strickland's bid for re-election and Fisher's Senate run.
"We know how to win," Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern said.
Redfern dismissed Washington Democrats' worries and said the state party was capable of ushering Fisher and others to victory.
"Folks are fixated on the number of campaign managers Lee Fisher has hired or fired in the last year," Redfern said. "It's late July and there's nothing to talk about."
But Democrats in Washington are citing those developments as they decide where to allocate resources. Fisher's former spokesman John Collins is now working on the open Senate race in Kentucky, where Democrat Jack Conway is facing tea party-backed candidate Rand Paul.
Democrats hope to remind voters that Portman was Bush's budget director and trade ambassador and then link him to the state's struggling economy, which posted a 10.4 percent unemployment rate last month.
In an ad released Tuesday, Portman's campaign hit back on the Democrats' criticism and noted that 400,000 jobs went to other states while Fisher oversaw state economic development.
Organized labor, a powerful force during presidential elections in Ohio, notes the state's 1.6 million voters with ties to unions. But not all workers' groups are behind Fisher. Last week, the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police backed Portman over Fisher, who spent three days seeking their support.
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