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Ohio Dems fight for nomination in U.S. Senate race

COLUMBUS (AP) — Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief when the U.S. Senate primary is decided in May.

The dogfight between two of their heavyweights — Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner — has sapped attention from their ultimate goal: Winning back the seat retiring Republican George Voinovich has held since 1999.

While Fisher and Brunner have been busy competing, GOP Senate candidate Rob Portman has amassed a small fortune of more than $6 million to spend against the victor for the November general election. That’s more than three times the roughly $1.9 million Fisher and Brunner have raised combined, most of it by Fisher, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.

In the battle for the U.S. House, meanwhile, Ohio voters will decide 24 primary contests involving 12 of 18 incumbents. Six Democrats face challengers, as do six Republicans — though most of the non-incumbents don’t have the bank accounts to present a serious threat.

Still, anti-incumbent fervor and dissatisfaction with some members’ stances on President Obama’s health care overhaul and a “cap-and-trade” climate bill to reduce greenhouse gases has contributed to a flood of challengers.

Four Republicans, including wealthy Cleveland car dealer Tom Ganley, are competing to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton in the fall; four are facing off to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. John Boccieri, whose district includes Canton; and three are vying for a chance at Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s district that runs along much of the state’s eastern border. Taking the prize for interest the 18th District in central Ohio, where eight Republicans and a write-in Constitution candidate want Democratic U.S. Rep. Zack Space’s job.

After his support of the cap-and-trade bill fueled critics in his coal country district, Space was the only Ohio Democrat to oppose the health care bill.

U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Loveland Republican who has a narrow hold on her southwest Ohio seat, is already fighting to keep it in the primary, with three GOP opponents lined up against her. Three Democrats are also seeking the seat. Two Republicans are also on the ballot against U.S. Rep. John Boehner, the highly visible House GOP leader, whose district borders Indiana.

In his fight for the Senate seat, Fisher, 58, is campaigning on his decades in public service in the state, including time as a state lawmaker, state attorney general and Gov. Ted Strickland’s economic development director. Strickland helped kick off Fisher’s campaign by endorsing him.

Brunner, 53, is an elections lawyer and a former Common Pleas judge. She was one of the Democrats swept into state office in 2006 as voters reacted to a series of Republican scandals. An endorsement from Emily’s List, a coalition that supports pro-choice female candidates, gave her a fundraising boost that year that she doesn’t have this time around. She had just $61,000 in the bank on the last campaign finance reporting deadline.

Money will buy Fisher a television ad or two close to Election Day. If Brunner lacks the money to do the same, it could decide the election. She has said her strategy is to build a grass-roots network, to make good use of social and electronic media and to capitalize on the name recognition from her statewide office.

Behind the scenes, both candidates are fighting hard for key endorsements. A spat erupted recently when Fisher formally sought the Ohio Democratic Party’s endorsement and Brunner’s campaign launched a protest by supporters. The party decided to remain neutral.

The central issue of the campaign is tackling the state’s nearly 11 percent unemployment rate.

Fisher supports a jobs plan that includes offering tax credits to encourage job creation and research and development, banning executive bonuses at banks helped by federal bailout money and giving more power to bankruptcy judges over loan agreements.

Brunner, meanwhile, has launched an Innovation Tour for Ohio Jobs across the state, which is seeks to encourage creativity by honoring entrepreneurs and small businesses for their “big ideas.” She wants to see unspent bank bailout money used on roads and bridges and federal stimulus funds used for a loan guarantee for Ohio’s automotive suppliers. She has made renewing Ohio’s cities a key priority if she’s elected.

Both candidates are treading lightly on the gun rights issue. Fisher says his longtime support for gun control measures, especially in urban settings like his Cleveland hometown, doesn’t negate his support for 2nd Amendment gun rights of hunters and sportsmen. Brunner touts her support for the right to bear arms, while also supporting congressional action to shut down illegal trafficking of guns.

Both support gay marriage, Fisher after softening his earlier opposition in 2009.

A Quinnipiac University poll released in February showed Fisher leading Brunner 29 percent to 20 percent, on a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The survey showed both Democrats trailing Portman in a general election matchup. Portman led Fisher 40 percent to 37 percent and topped Brunner 40 percent to 35 percent, according to overall results that had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.