For months, Ohio’s Democratic gubernatorial primary was framed both nationally and in the state as a closer-than-expected matchup between a famous lefty firebrand scrapper, Dennis Kucinich, and the staid Establishment choice, Richard Cordray. So when Cordray crushed Kucinich by 40 points on Tuesday night, it was a clear loss for the theory that Donald Trump–era politics has been completely overtaken by showmanship. And it was a significant win for Democrats hoping to steer their party far in the opposite direction come November.
Cordray, after all, makes a show of not being a showman. Here’s a man who’s been physically compared to 30 Rock’s wide-eyed Kenneth the Page for years, who was referred to in a recent Toledo Blade editorial (“Boring may prevail in Ohio gubernatorial race”) as “plodding [but] rational,” and whose central campaign bet was depicted by the New York Times as a “hope that voters will not mistake boring for moderate.”
Cordray is, indeed, not aiming to invigorate the furious Democratic base with the anti-Establishment fire of Elizabeth Warren, his highest-profile surrogate and political ally. Instead, his game is to remind voters that as a onetime Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director under Barack Obama, an Ohio attorney general, state treasurer, and state solicitor general, he has the experience to protect everyday voters and ensure them quality health care and economic security.
If that sounds nothing like Trump’s fire and fury — or if it sounds, to borrow from the Blade and the Times, boring — that’s partially the point of Cordray’s style of campaigning. Cordray is well on his way to becoming the highest-profile test case for the handful of national Democratic leaders now betting that at a time when voters can’t turn on their televisions or open a newspaper without hearing about Trump, a pitch centered on competence may be enough to win in 2018, and maybe in 2020 — even in a state where Trump easily beat Hillary Clinton.
“His brand fits very well at a time when people are seeing showbiz-type politics out of Washington. Having someone say, ‘I’m not here to run a show, I’m here to run the state effectively,’ it’s a strong brand,” predicted Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper.
It’s the kind of brand that some Democrats are betting could put the party back on the path to winning in Trump-friendly destinations in a brutal midterm season.
A big part of that bet’s origin story begins in late December 2017 and early January of this year, when a pair of veteran Democratic strategists made the rounds in Washington to sell their party’s leaders and operatives on the idea that there were some big — if unglamorous — lessons from Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in Alabama that they would be wise to apply in November’s elections.
Joe Trippi, who’d worked as Jones’s media strategist, spoke with officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Paul Maslin, Jones’s pollster, presented his findings to a meeting of Democratic senators’ chiefs of staff. The pair teamed up to sit down with the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
Sure, they acknowledged both in behind-closed-doors sessions and in public, Moore was obviously a fundamentally flawed candidate. But, went a central piece of their pitch, Jones was successful in part because of his message of stability and, well, basic competence. The argument wasn’t quite that “boring is beautiful.” Yet, at a time of nonstop Trump-driven shock and awe back in Washington, they found that the candidate’s calm, understated mien and focus on his experience won over exhausted voters. Following this line of messaging certainly wouldn’t mean running a soft-on-Trump or cynically centrist campaign — just look at Ralph Northam’s huge win last November in Virginia’s gubernatorial race: the then-lieutenant governor called the president a “narcissistic maniac” during his run — but in most cases voters can draw the contrast with the Oval Office for themselves.
“Given the president’s historically low approval ratings, the energy among Democrats and the real exhaustion we saw in Alabama in elements of the GOP — they are tired of the chaos and the feeling they have of constantly being on edge, all created by Trump — Democrats with the right message will win a larger majority than people are expecting,” Trippi urged in the Times in January. “That includes less stridency and more common-sense policies and solutions.”
Their argument wasn’t exactly welcomed by fed-up progressives who wanted bolder anger from their candidates, but it gained steam in March after Conor Lamb’s win in a congressional special election in Pennsylvania.
Cordray himself is no direct product of this push — he announced his candidacy a week before the Alabama election, and had been plotting his run for months — but he fits the style. And his early success suggests it’s working.
Though the contest ended up being defined largely by Kucinich’s ties to Bashar al-Assad and Cordray’s record on guns, the primary was read by many voters as an at-times neck-and-neck insurgent-versus-party-man showdown. (There were vanishingly few public polls.)
That was an overly simplistic framing, but the choice was clear to primary voters. While Cordray had the support of many state Democratic leaders and labor groups, and he featured Barack Obama in his ads, his most prominent surrogate by far was the liberal hero Warren, who created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that he ran. The potential 2020 presidential candidate endorsed the progressive Cordray as soon as he announced his candidacy and marshaled her large email list to raise money and organize for him early, before dropping into Cincinnati to talk about the opioid epidemic alongside him last month. She then hosted a fundraiser for him in person, and rallied a crowd at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Yet while Cordray agitates for change in the state capital, the core of his stump is a nerdy policy-heavy appeal. His buttoned-up stick-to-the-script speeches couldn’t be further from Trump’s MAGA rallies.
“I just think that could be a relief for voters when the daily chaos in Washington is stressing everybody out,” said Pepper. “There’s something soothing about a candidate who says, ‘I’m not here to entertain you, I’m here to get the job done.’”