Why Ohio Democrats Might Turn to a 30-Year-Old Senate Candidate

P.G. Sittenfeld has been doing the behind-the-scenes legwork to mount an unusual Senate campaign in 2016.

Political parties would normally shy away from even the possibility of entrusting a multimillion-dollar Senate campaign, one against an entrenched incumbent in a race that could determine control of the majority, to a 30-year-old city councilman. But in Ohio, some well-connected Democrats are reacting positively to the news that Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has dipped his toe in the water. To them, the fresh-faced politician is reminiscent of another former Senate longshot with little pedigree or experience: New Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Sittenfeld began collecting donations this week for a potential Senate bid, according to a report by The Cincinnati Enquirer. And though bigger Democratic names like former Gov. Ted Strickland or Rep. Tim Ryan have attracted more speculative attention ahead of GOP Sen. Rob Portman's reelection, Sittenfeld told National Journal in an email Tuesday that he'll be making an announcement of his own "in the days ahead."

City Council to U.S. Senate is, by any standard, an enormous jump. Portman is widely regarded as one of Democrats' toughest targets this cycle, and if Sittenfeld were successful, he would become one of youngest members in the Senate's history. And on top of that, Strickland—one of the oldest, most-liked, and well-established Democrats in the state—says he's still making up his mind about a bid of his own, which would almost certainly sideline Sittenfeld.

But as Democrats face a promising-looking map—yet one with a meager bench of potential candidates thanks to a combination of gerrymandering and multiple electoral wipeouts—the party may need to get a bit creative with its candidates this cycle. Already, Democrats in three of the country's biggest Senate races have narrowed their wish lists to just a single candidate each, two of whom have already lost Senate races in the past.

In Sittenfeld, however, some Democrats see an exciting prospect for a fresh face after spending last cycle getting beat by one. Ernst took political observers by surprise when she rose from little-known Iowa state senator to GOP superstar in a personality-driven campaign. (Ernst first made her name touting her talent for "cutting pork"—a skill she picked up castrating hogs on her family farm.) Sittenfeld, a clean-cut Princeton grad, has already proven his ability to steal the spotlight once. He was the top vote-getter in the 2013 City Council race, taking more than 38,000 votes, more than the 22,000 Ernst took to win her state Senate race in 2012 before making the jump.

Longtime Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin said he wasn't sure whether Sittenfeld was the right candidate to challenge Portman. But in his experience advising underdogs like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Austin said the young candidate displayed political talent he and other longtime Ohio Democrats hadn't seen in close to 40 years.

"I've had conversations with people in the state, people who have been around like I have," Austin said in an interview. "I've said, 'When was the last time we had a Democrat, and you met this person and you said, I don't know what this guy or this woman wants to do when they grow up, but here's a potential star?' Everybody agreed the last time we saw somebody like that his name was [now-Sen.] Sherrod Brown.... Well, this kid from Cincinnati, he's impressed people the same way."

Unusually for a city councilman, the 30-year-old is no stranger to Democratic elites across the big state. Not only has Sittenfeld been traveling the state talking to voters in places like Toledo and Youngstown, but he's also been running a months-long networking campaign, sitting down with Democratic activists and consultants across the state—and gathering their contacts to meet their friends as well. It's time well-invested, given that Sittenfeld lacks the donor base of his fellow Democratic contenders and the Republican incumbent, Portman, already has more than $5 million stockpiled for reelection.

Sittenfeld has also made the rounds in D.C. He's worked with Washington-based consultant Tad Devine, who advised Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and John Kerry's in 2004. Former Cincinnati Republican Rep. Bill Gradison, who has a donation record on Sittenfeld's campaign website, has played a host role for Sittenfeld when he comes to D.C. for fundraisers, according to one Ohio Democrat. (Gradison declined an interview request. Portman once worked for Gradison and succeeded him in Congress in 1993.)

In sum, Sittenfeld's unusual contact list means people sound ready to give him a look ahead of a high-profile race.

"When you look at the fact that he was able to finish first in our City Council election, it's proof he's been very popular down here across a wide range of groups," said Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke. "He's very well regarded in the African-American community and organized labor. And on top of that, you don't finish first in our community down here unless you can pick up a significant number of Republican votes as well."

"These days a lot of the battle in politics is clearly about who energizes the next generation of voters," said new Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, for whom Sittenfeld once interned on the City Council. "When they're energized like they were in 2012 and 2008 it really helps. "¦ When they don't show up, it's a problem. I think P.G. is someone who is a very attractive candidate who brings a real constituency with him."

State party leaders believe that if another Democratic heavyweight like Strickland or Ryan threw his name in the hat, Sittenfeld would sit out the race and wait for another statewide opportunity—one that he definitely seems to be preparing for, given his early reservation of campaign-related website domains. He'd have just such a chance in 2018 when Republican Gov. John Kasich is term-limited.

Strickland said in an interview Tuesday evening that he had just gotten off the phone with Sittenfeld and that the two men are in close communication about the Senate race. Strickland said his decision, expected in the next few months, would hinge on whether he was the best candidate for the race, and he said that a Sittenfeld campaign wouldn't change his calculus.

"In Ohio you've got to have resources," said Strickland. "Running statewide is a huge challenge. I've run statewide in Ohio twice, I've raised the resources I needed twice, and I think I could do it again."

Yet Ohio Democrats aren't automatically recoiling from the relatively untested Sittenfeld. Asked to appraise the younger Democrat, Strickland said, "I really admire his energy and commitment to public service." It's a measure of Sittenfeld's unusual pedigree—and what could be an unusually quick rise.

An earlier version of this story misquoted the years referenced by David Pepper, they are 2012 and 2008.