In an election cycle where so many Democrats are running away from President Obama, Ohio's Democratic Governor Ted Strickland has unflinchingly embraced Obama from the beginning. And the White House and Democratic establishment have gone to the mat for Strickland.
But for Team Obama, this is not an act of altruism. They know Ohio, even though it may lose two electoral votes, will be crucial in 2012. They know their chances of carrying the state are drastically improved with a friendly governor. And they know how important Strickland can potentially be for them during redistricting. Democrats are looking at a horrible election night this Tuesday. But winning the gubernatorial race in Ohio would be a huge victory--and relief--for the White House. In fact, though Team Obama may not admit it, they probably care as much about this race, along with Florida's gubernatorial contest, as any this cycle.
Strickland's opponent is John Kasich. Kasich, an instrumental behind-the-scenes figure in the 1994 Republican revolution. As the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, his floor speeches leading up to that election inspired people to become Republicans and some to even run for Congress. Once the GOP got control of Congress, Kasich, as chairman of the Budget Committee, presided over a historic surplus and balanced budget along with President Bill Clinton. Now, he's running an optimistic campaign that attempts to convince Ohio voters that he's the person to turn around the state.
Democrats have tried to tie Kasich's association with Lehman Brothers around his neck like an albatross. (CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article implied that Kasich worked for Goldman Sachs. He did not)
Both candidates have not really been specific in their plans or proposals. If anything, the gubernatorial election seems to be a race that may boil down to whether, in Obama's formulation, voters want to go back to the past with Kasich (despite his optimism on the stump) or inch along toward the future with Strickland and Obama.
Kasich has a slight lead even as Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman, who carries a monumental financial edge over Democrat Lee Fisher, will probably win his race far and away.
And here's a wildcard. There has been a lot of buzz over the White House's broad allegations--without any specific accusations--that foreign money has financed many of the independent groups, such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie's American Crossroads, that have been putting up ads for Republicans and against Democrats across the nation. The media played referee and ridiculed the White House for bringing up these charges. But in Ohio, where workers are upset that blue collar jobs have been shipped overseas, where economic nationalism matters, such a charge may have an impact. It could turn just enough Republicans away from Kasich, and this could make all the difference for Strickland.
If Democrats retain control of Ohio's statehouse for redistricting purposes and Obama has an ally in Strickland for 2012, then the White House's "foreign money" charges may have been worth it.
This race may not make all the headlines and evening shows, and perhaps the White House likes it that way, but it matters for 2012. Which is why both sides will closely monitor it on election night.