The Democratic primary for governor in Ohio could well boil down to where the candidates stand and what kind of record they have on gun control.
It's reasonable to believe the vast majority of Democratic primary voters, in the wake of cold-blooded murder of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, are enraged over the easy access to semi-automatic weapons and are solidly behind the nationwide movement of high school students marching and lobbying for gun control.
If that is the case, former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who started his campaign as the undeniable front-runner for the Democratic nomination, may have reason to be concerned.
He's still carrying an albatross around his neck: an A rating given to him by the National Rifle Association (NRA) back in 2010 when he was running for a full term as attorney general. (He ultimately lost to Mike DeWine, now a governor contender on the Republican side.)
We'd be willing to wager that when former Cordray came back from a seven-year stint as Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director in Washington to run for governor, he hadn't counted on the kind of firestorm he's in the middle of now. Cordray ran and won statewide office in the past – both the attorney general's office and state treasurer.
The rest of the field was made up mostly of candidates little known outside the comfy confines of their respective corners of Ohio – people like former state Rep. Connie Pillich of Montgomery, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and state Sen. Joe Schiavoni.
A few months later, all but Schiavoni are gone from the race. Sutton jumped on board and became his running mate for lieutenant governor. Now, Cordray’s principal opponent appears to be a man who has developed a reputation as one of the true gad-flies of American politics, but who, in this case, has to be taken seriously – former Cleveland mayor and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
We've known a lot of politicians over the years – enough to fill a medium-sized city – and we haven't run across many as eccentric and unpredictable as Kucinich. Many people laughed when he entered the Ohio governor's race, but they're not laughing now.
A poll done by Survey USA for Cleveland 19 News last week had Cordray and Kucinich in a dead heat at 21 percentage points each, with a huge number of undecided voters. (State Sen. Joe Schiavoni trails behind at 5 percent, and former Ohio Supreme Court justice Bill O'Neill sits at 4 percent.)
And why is the man many think of as “Dennis the Menace” dead even with a buttoned-down establishment candidate like Cordray? One word: Guns.
Gun control is quickly becoming the defining issue of the campaign; and Cordray appears to be on the wrong side of it, while Kucinich is marching right in line with majority opinion among Ohio's Democratic primary voters.
Cordray opposes banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons; Kucinich favors it. Even Cordray's running mate is on Kucinich's side on this one.
"I have stood for an assault weapons ban,'' Sutton told the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Democratic Club last week. "My running mate believes that the semi-automatic weapon should be for legal ownership by those who play by the rules and follow the laws.
"Rich and I do have a difference of opinion on this; and I think having a difference of opinion on a team is not a bad thing,'' Sutton said.
It is not as if Cordray has no interest in any gun control measure. He favors universal background checks and a ban on "bump stocks," which allow rifles to fire like machine guns. He also wants to see more school safety measures.
But Kucinich is wont to remind campaign audiences that, as state attorney general, Cordray fought in court to keep cities from enacting their own gun control laws – one of the reasons he had an A rating from the NRA.
"Opposing an assault weapons ban is sort of a disqualifying issue for a lot of Democratic voters,'' said David Niven, assistant professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati.
"Cordray is sort of like an Ichabod Crane figure – you wake up and find that the party has left you behind,'' Niven said.
Can Kucinich win the primary?
Yes, without question, said Niven. But he doesn't think he will.
"In the end, I think Cordray wins, but with six candidates on the ballot, it's going to be a terribly split vote,'' Niven said. "And that's not really what you want as a Democrat going into a general election."
Update: Added poll numbers for Schiavoni and O'Neill.
“Politically Speaking” is WVXU reporter Howard Wilkinson’s weekly column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us. Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974.