COLUMBUS - Ohio's Republican and Democratic gubernatorial front-runners are gearing up for a November showdown amid complaints both major parties got too aggressive in pushing out primary challengers.
A little-known Democrat from the Dayton filed before Wednesday's afternoon deadline for the May 6 primary. However, Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Owens was skeptical about the bid, telling newspaper reporters that Larry Ealy had past problems qualifying to run for other offices. Candidates for governor submit petitions with signatures of 1,000 registered voters that have to be verified by elections officials.
A phone listing for Ealy wasn't working Wednesday evening.
The Democrats had a primary battle looming as recently as last Friday, before Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune quietly withdrew his late bid against Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.
The Republican primary field was clear for first-term Gov. John Kasich as a potential tea party challenge fell through. Would-be challenger Ted Stevenot, a tea party favorite, decided against it, and other possible candidates didn't move forward.
Portune and Stevenot both said they would have liked to take their campaigns farther but party pressure got in the way. Neither was among candidates who filed by Wednesday's deadline.
Such concerns aren't unusual to hear from underdog challengers but were a surprise this year because neither party was expected to face a primary - then both did, said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics.
Green said incumbent governors rarely have a primary, and Ohio Democrats eager to maximize their chances of beating him were doing their best to rally leaders, officeholders, donors and activists behind FitzGerald.
"There were, no doubt, people against those challenges," he said. He noted party leaders often oppose primaries as unnecessarily divisive and expensive, while supporters view them as a good way to air party differences.
FitzGerald had been running since early last year, but Portune entered the race Dec. 30 after a flap over tax liens prompted FitzGerald's first running mate to drop out of the race.
He said he was hearing from rank-and-file Democrats the desire for a choice.
Portune saw his effort to mount a challenge to FitzGerald fizzle when he ran into problems attracting a running mate, a requirement before the filing deadline for governor. He said last month he thought some potential lieutenant governor candidates were scared off by party leaders' opposition.
"The party has made it very clear that it doesn't want this to happen. There is a lot of pressure on would-be candidates," Portune said.
On the Republican side, Stevenot was saying exactly the same things - tea party activists wanted a choice and, when he dropped out, that party pressure had come to bear.
"I do this reluctantly, because I know that part of what has gone wrong with our political process is that the two major parties have made it exceedingly difficult for a common person to run for office," he said.
Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern rejected suggestions the party blocked Portune's gubernatorial aspirations.
In a Wednesday interview, he said the party carries out an extensive public process leading to its endorsements of statewide candidates and Portune was never part of that process.
"It's public. We can't have it in a back room. It's not, 'Let's make a decision to go with so-and-so and no one will know it,' in a smoke-filled room and all that stuff. That's not the way it works," he said. "This is why I get a little exasperated at this notion that the fix was in and we were all out to get Todd Portune out of the race."
Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republicans, said it's the party's practice to stick by incumbents.
Green said he didn't see party leaders being any more, or less, aggressive than usual. But he said because both Portune and Stevenot effectively represented dissident voices and weren't in the party pipeline for future office, gentle negotiation wasn't likely.
"When candidates see themselves as opposing the leaders of the party then it's much more difficult to take them for a glass of wine or a beer and work out what's going to happen," he said.
Kasich and FitzGerald will still see at least one third-party challenger - Libertarian Charlie Earl - alongside them on November's ballot.