Ted Strickland, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, has steadfastly refused to debate his opponent for the Democratic nomination despite that backers, including the current chair of the state party, once criticized an official for refusing debates ahead of an election.
Strickland, a former congressman and governor of Ohio, has ignored repeated requests for debates from P.G. Sittenfeld, a Cincinnati city councilman and candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, despite an invitation from local radio and television outlets to both contenders to debate in late January. Strickland has described Sittenfeld’s appeals as a distraction, focusing instead on incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R), the primary victor’s ultimate competition.
"This primary is going to be over in a relatively short period of time. I intend to focus my attention, my time, on Rob Portman. I am not going to allow myself to be distracted by anything like that," Strickland said of the requests in an interview Friday with WVXU, one of the outlets that offered to host a debate.
Strickland’s refusal to debate Sittenfeld appears at odds with previous positions held by the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, which has endorsed the former governor for the nomination, and one of his fundraisers.
When running to unseat Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2014, David Pepper, the Ohio Democrats’ current chairman, slammed the incumbent for "showing contempt for voters and civic groups" by refusing to participate in debates.
"Candidates owe it to their fellow Ohioans to stand next to each other to defend their positions," Pepper said in a statement in September 2014. Following his unsuccessful campaign for attorney general, Pepper was unanimously elected Ohio Democratic Party chair in December 2014.
Likewise, one of Strickland’s fundraisers harshly criticized DeWine for refusing debates, calling him "just plain wrong."
"As voters, we deserve to hear directly from all our candidates as to their positions on critical issues of the day," Joyce Shrimplin, an Ohio Democratic Party donor who hosted a fundraiser for Strickland last November, wrote in a September 2014 letter to the editor published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Shrimplin went on to label DeWine "self-serving and weak" for rejecting invitations to debate. She also described herself as "troubled by [DeWine’s] timidity" toward debating his opponent.
"Shouldn't a leader with his experience stand up to defend his incumbency? By refusing to participate in an open and fair debate, he puts self-interest ahead of the voter’s need to be informed," Shrimplin said.
Strickland, 74, has had a long career in public office. He represented Ohio’s 6th district in Congress from 1993 to 1994 and 1997 to 2006 and went on to become governor in 2007, serving one term.
Strickland himself was the one demanding debates with his Republican opponents in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial races. Further, when running for Congress in 1996, Strickland demanded debates against Republican incumbent Rep. Frank Cremeans, who declined the requests because of scheduling difficulties.
Strickland supporters resorted to sending an individual dressed in a chicken costume to Cremeans’ campaign events, according to local media reports at the time.
Sittenfeld has cited Strickland’s recent reversal on gun regulations as reason for the two candidates to meet in primary debates. While Strickland previously received high ratings from the NRA, he now supports the expansion of background checks and a ban on firearm purchases for people on the terror watch list. Strickland reaffirmed his new position on social media Tuesday as President Obama rolled out his latest executive action on guns.
"Yesterday, ‘the new Ted Strickland’ hypocritically embraced the same background checks that the ‘old Ted Strickland’ has spent his entire career voting against. In 2010—the last time he was on the ballot—Strickland even bragged about his opposition to background checks and the A+ rating it earned him from the NRA," Dale Butland, Sittenfeld’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday.
"So maybe we’ve had this debate thing backwards. Instead of asking Ted to debate P.G., maybe we should be asking the old Ted Strickland to debate the new Ted Strickland. And P.G. can debate the winner."
Neither the Ohio Democratic Party nor Strickland’s campaign responded to requests for comment.