Why Running for Senate Against the Democratic Establishment Is So Difficult

In Ohio, P.G. Sittenfeld's fundraising started strong, but with Ted Strickland in the race, he's raising half as much in twice the time.

Ohio Democratic Senate candidate P.G. Sittenfeld's first-quarter fundraising looks solid on the surface. The 31-year-old, first-time statewide candidate announced Monday that he raised $750,000 in just over two months. But inside those numbers is a downward trend that illustrates how difficult it is to run against the Democratic establishment.

When Sittenfeld declared his intention to challenge Republican Sen. Rob Portman in late January this year, many state Democrats cheered his efforts. With the help of big-name donors like Cincinnati businessman Allan Berliant and Google exec Eric Schmidt, campaign sources told local media that Sittenfeld brought in $500,000 in just weeks.

But in late February, former Gov. Ted Strickland said he'd run for the Democratic nomination, too, and as the Democratic establishment got behind him, the flow of money into Sittenfeld's coffers turned into more of a trickle. Since Sittenfeld's campaign says he raised $750,000 total in the first quarter, his campaign brought in only $250,000 after its fast start—half the money in twice the time.

After Strickland got in, party heavies from Sen. Sherrod Brown to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to former President Bill Clinton, who made his first endorsement of the 2016 elections, lined up behind the former governor. The state Democratic Party released polling showing Strickland doing better against Portman, and party leaders told the press Sittenfeld had promised to bow out of the race if Strickland got in.

Sittenfeld isn't the only Senate candidate Democratic Party leaders are trying to lock out. While the DSCC has not endorsed in other primaries, party leaders still find ways to make their preferences known. As The Palm Beach Post reported Monday, Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy has already collected money from PACs run by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the DSCC chairman himself, Sen. Jon Tester. Some progressive groups in Florida and Rep. Alan Grayson have spoken of running against Murphy, who styled himself as a centrist in his first House term, in the Democratic primary.

For their part, Sittenfeld's campaign insists Strickland hasn't affected their efforts.

"It's true that there were a lot of 'early' events surrounding and leading up to P.G.'s announcement toward the end of January," Sittenfeld campaign spokesman Dale Butland wrote in an email Monday. "But "¦ the FEC [Federal Election Commission] report will show that the final two weeks of the reporting period were among our strongest."

Butland said donations had surged in the last two weeks because Sittenfeld's campaign brought on a finance chair, who is "not only focusing on the second quarter, but also laying out a strategy for the rest of the year," Butland said.

But Sittenfeld is virtually unknown, while Strickland remains well-known and well-liked across the state, according to new polling. And to combat that, Sittenfeld will need to arrest the fundraising drop he experienced in the second half of the first quarter.