It's a gamble for the party to rely so heavily on the brand-name political veterans. Former statewide officeholders like Strickland carry important advantages into major campaigns, including high name recognition and a proven ability to raise money. But in a cycle where Democrats can finally turn the page on the Obama era, when many voters are distrustful of anything that smacks of the political establishment, their candidacies are also inextricably linked to both the president and the past.
But most senior Democratic officials are embracing the past. They argue that, although former officeholders are sometimes a risky bet, most members of the current crop of potential recruits are well-qualified to run for office again. Against a well-funded and entrenched incumbent like Portman, they say Democrats can't afford to roll the dice with someone untested.
"There's no question there's always need for a fresh face, but these are people who are very savvy, and well-liked, and gold-chip prospects," said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. "So I think there's a difference between someone who's been around the block and lost 20 times" and the candidates being recruited today.
In Ohio, the primary could pit two candidates with very different levels of experience—in the septuagenarian Strickland and 30-year-old Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who already declared his candidacy. If Strickland runs, he's well positioned to receive the vast majority of party support.
That preference for the familiar concerns several skeptics who believe the party is already suffering from an age imbalance among its leaders—a discrepancy that could be exacerbated if the party nominates the 67-year-old Hillary Clinton for president—and could use an infusion of younger talent.
"The Ohio Democrats fall into two categories," said Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. "Those who understand it's time for the future and find new people to run "¦ and those who don't know anything other than the past. That's why they fall back on candidates like Strickland."
Still, in at least four other states, Democrats are ready to test the proposition that former officeholders are their best bet to knock off GOP incumbents.
Like Strickland, political operatives will find a lot to like in each of their perspective candidacies. Hagan proved a dynamite fundraiser during her last campaign, for instance, while Begich came close to a stunning victory in a red state during a terrible year for the party. Sestak was a former Navy admiral, and Feingold's brand of outspoken independence makes it difficult to label him just another politician.
But the quartet of former officeholders also voted for many of the least popular parts of President Obama's agenda, such as Obamacare. Many of them—like Feingold—held statewide office for nearly two decades. With the exception of Begich, all of them are over 60 years old.