Democrats in Ohio are increasingly worried that former Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s ties to fringe groups ― including supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and those who promote conspiracy theories around the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks ― will destroy their chances of winning the governor’s mansion in November.
“Democrats interested in winning are shitting themselves,” one Democratic elected official told HuffPost on condition of anonymity. “It’s not just baggage. It’s funky baggage. What Democrat is friendly with Assad? What Democrat praised [President Donald Trump’s] inauguration?”
“If [Kucinich] wins the primary, he brings down everybody but Sherrod,” said Sandy Theis, former executive director of nonprofit Progress Ohio and a former statehouse bureau chief for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “He’s so outside of the mainstream.” (“Sherrod” is a reference to the state’s senior senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown.)
Kucinich’s backers wave off these concerns as the fretting of out-of-touch establishment Democrats.
“It’s easy for the political insiders to say that,” said Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-aligned group that has endorsed Kucinich, and a former Ohio state senator. “The heart the congressman has, his history of service to Ohio, that’s what matters, not these made-up boogeymen.”
And they see an echo of the 2016 presidential primary, when many of them backed Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, over eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“It seems to us the same argument that Hillary supporters used against Bernie. What it really means is we don’t want to go face-to-face with you on issues and positions, so we’ll argue you can’t win,” said Steve Holecko, the political director of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.
The gubernatorial primary battle between Kucinich and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray has been the premier Democratic fight of the 2018 electoral cycle so far, pitting a two-time presidential candidate who has the backing of Sanders’ political organization, if not Sanders himself, against a former Ohio attorney general with the backing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Kucinich’s longtime support for a range of progressive priorities, including Medicare-for-all, marijuana decriminalization and free college tuition, along with his attacks on Cordray’s past support of gun rights, has created a close primary contest. The winner will take on the victor in the GOP primary battle between state Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
Most Democrats who spoke to HuffPost remain hopeful that Cordray will prevail in the May 8 primary. Cordray has spent $1.5 million on television ads meant to raise his name identification. But the high number of undecided voters in public polls means that Democrats can’t feel completely confident about the front-runner.
Plus, that spending gap may soon close. Kucinich is expected to launch his first television ads on Thursday, according to two sources tracking media buys in the race, and a group founded by a backer of Lt. Gov. Taylor is spending on TV ads attacking Cordray from the left.
“Why do Republicans love Rich Cordray so much?” a narrator says at the start of the 30-second ad from the Citizens Policy Institute, as Cordray’s face morphs into Trump’s. The ad goes on to attack Cordray for once having an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and for resigning from his post as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, allowing Trump to name his replacement. “We can’t win with Republican lite,” the ad concludes. “Is Rich Cordray really a Democrat?” (Kucinich has also hammered Cordray over his past NRA support.)
The founder of the Citizens Policy Institute is Tony George, a Syrian-American Cleveland-area restaurateur and a prominent local Trump supporter. His organization is spending about $62,000 on two ads in the Cleveland television market, according to the media-buying sources ― the spot attacking Cordray and another criticizing a local GOP legislator.
George, who has a long history of controversy and feuds with local elected officials, has also donated more than a quarter-million dollars to a PAC supporting Taylor in the GOP primary. George, who couldn’t be reached for comment, told BuzzFeed News that the anti-Cordray ad had “nothing to do” with trying to boost Kucinich’s chances of winning the Democratic primary.
While much national coverage of Kucinich has focused on his support for progressive ideals long before they were popular within the Democratic Party, his ties to Assad, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R) and other controversial figures are what worry state Democrats more than his domestic policy positions.
Kucinich received $20,000 to speak at a London conference of the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, an event that critics derided as propaganda for the Assad regime. The CEO of that association is also a board member of the nonprofit Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. (Kucinich is returning the $20,000 fee.)
The candidate has also questioned special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign, saying it had a “high BS quotient.” He serves on an advisory board of the Ron Paul Institute, alongside Lew Rockwell, who ghost-wrote Paul’s infamous newsletter. He has appeared dozens of times on the RT news channel, which is funded by the Russian government. He called President Barack Obama’s decision to bomb Libya in 2011 an “impeachable offense.” And he’s echoed Trump’s concerns about the so-called deep state and praised his inaugural address.
Don’t we want someone who’s willing to go into territory that’s unfriendly and try to win people over? Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, who supports Kucinich
Turner, the Our Revolution president, said Kucinich’s dealings with Assad supporters are part of his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, noting that Kucinich supported the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace when he was running for president. She described his work with Republicans as simply outreach.
“Don’t we want someone who’s willing to go into territory that’s unfriendly and try to win people over?” Turner asked. She suggested the local progressive groups that recommended Our Revolution back Kucinich were unconcerned by his views in this area. “Those groups didn’t bring up Russia or Syria,” she said.
“It’s curious that one of the ways they’re trying to malign his character is to bring up things no governor of Ohio would have to deal with,” Turner added.
Holecko admitted that Kucinich’s ties to Assad were a “flaw in Dennis’ résumé,” but said the focus on that issue showed establishment Democrats didn’t want to discuss policy positions.
Kucinich’s campaign spokesman, Andy Juniewicz, dismissed the idea that his candidate would struggle to win over voters in the general election as a “phony argument.”
“He ran for mayor of Cleveland against an incumbent Republican and won,” Juniewicz wrote in an email. “He ran for the Ohio State Senate against an incumbent Republican and won. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives against an incumbent Republican and won. Richard Cordray already lost to Mike DeWine the last time they faced off. Whoever is raising the question of electability is obviously unfamiliar with the facts.”
Kucinich clearly isn’t concerned with appearing too close to Russia or Syria. On Sunday night, he went on Larry King’s talk show to deplore how unelected elements within the U.S. government were pushing Trump to be “more hawkish, more interventionist” toward Syria.
The network? RT.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Sandy Theis is the executive director of nonprofit Progress Ohio. She is the former executive director of the group.