Ohio Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Richard Cordray has an advantage in his party’s primary race and his opponents know it. At this week’s debate in Toledo, the three other Democratic candidates called him on it.
Most colorfully, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill repeatedly needled Mr. Cordray, a former state Attorney General and first-ever federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director, as the “anointed one” because he is the state party’s favorite. Mr. O’Neill baited the mainstream party favorite further, calling him “Prince Richard.”
Mr. Cordray took these slams in stride, never even blinking, really.
His entry into the race in mid-January caused a tidal shift in the primary. Three women candidates who had been running for months — Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, and former State Rep. Connie Pillich — all dropped out of the race and endorsed him. Ms. Sutton became Mr. Cordray’s running mate.
This made Mr. Cordray the target of the remaining Democratic contenders, many of whom have repeatedly claimed on the campaign trail and in this week’s debate that he was “coronated” and has been unfairly favored by the state party before any primary votes have even been cast.
On stage Wednesday, Mr. Cordray did not seem to take the taunts to heart. He knows he does not have to.
“I would prefer to be known as Richard the Lionhearted,” he teased Mr. O’Neill.
In fact, his only serious response to the repeated criticisms that he is running with the unfair advantage, Mr. Cordray almost made his critics’ point for them by turning his attention to his most likely Republican opponent in the general election, Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Mr. Cordray pointed out that if he really felt entitled to the Democratic nomination, as his fellow Democrats accuse, he would act more like Mr. DeWine and refuse to debate them.
Mr. DeWine, his party’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate, has resisted calls to debate his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
Ms. Taylor’s campaign has responded by needling the Republican front-runner, much like Mr. O’Neill needled Mr. Cordray. Mr DeWine has been dogged at appearances around Ohio recently by someone in a duck costume holding a sign calling him “Debate-ducking DeWine.”
Of course, campaigns are serious games of strategy. Candidates with nothing to gain by elevating their opponent’s stature or risking a bad performance in a debate, like Mr. DeWine, have a strategic reason to skip them.
But as Wednesday’s Democratic debate proved, debates are not just for the candidates and their strategies. They serve an important democratic function. Constituents ought to be able to see candidates for public office together on a stage, facing each other, and taking questions.
Debates put candidates through their paces in ways that other campaign appearances, which candidates control and stage, cannot.
And the Republicans have some real issues that Mr. DeWine and Ms. Taylor should hash out in a public forum. Among them is a question Mr. Cordray posed Wednesday night: Would either Republican continue to support the expanded Medicaid eligibility that Gov. John Kasich fought so hard preserve?
Ohio’s next governor is going to have a full agenda of weighty issues to solve. Whichever candidate gets the job ought to earn their votes through a vigorous campaign that includes debates before both the primary and general elections.
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