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Party chairs discussing 2016 politics

COLUMBUS — The 2016 campaign was the catalyst for a spirited discussion between leaders of Ohio’s two major political parties at a forum in the capital city on Thursday.

State Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper and his Republican counterpart, Matthew Borges, sat down for a question and answer session with the media at the Ohio Associated Press Legislative Preview Session at the Thomas J. Moyer Judicial Center.

It didn’t take long for the discussion between Pepper and Borges, who said they normally get along well, to turn a bit contentious.

“If we’re going to get into it, let’s get into it,” Borges said, on his first turn of rebuttal to Pepper.

The two chairs were first asked about Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s run for the presidency and its effect on the 2016 political climate in the state.

“I don’t know how we could not be excited to have an Ohioan this far in the process,” Borges said of Kasich, who placed second in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and has outlasted several of his fellow Republican presidential candidates.

Borges said you would have to go back to the 1940s to find a presidential candidate from Ohio who had made it to this point in the nominating process, citing U.S. Sen. John Glenn’s 1984 bid for president and Kasich’s earlier flirtation with running, neither of which proved viable.

Borges stressed that no Republican president has ever won election without carrying Ohio, and said the activity in the state would be beneficial to his party.

“Not only do we have an Ohioan running, but the convention is coming to Ohio for the first time in 80 years,” Borges said of the Republicans’ event, set for Cleveland in July.

He said that upcoming contests, which are winner-take-all in delegates, are in states that he believes would be more receptive to Kasich, putting him in a strong position to win the nomination coming out of New Hampshire.

“He got more earned media from finishing second than Donald Trump got from coming in first,” Borges said of the primary vote.

While Borges was pleased with Kasich’s showing in New Hampshire, Pepper pointed out the wide margin between the first place Trump and the Ohio governor, who had focused the bulk of campaign activities in the Granite State.

“I’d say the best beneficiaries of Tuesday were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz,” he said. Pepper believes either of the two would present a problem for the Republicans in the fall.

“It would hand the election to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and (Republicans) will have to salvage the rest of the ticket,” he said.

The conversation turned to Ohio’s U.S. Senate race, in which incumbent Republican is seeking re-election in the fall.

He’s expected to face Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland, who is currently leading primary challenger P.G. Sittenfield, in the general election.

Borges, who said he believes Portman is “the best U.S. senator” in Washington, said he expects him to win in the fall against Strickland.

He said that Strickland’s negatives have gone up since the campaign began, as Republicans and groups have run ads against him.

“Once you remind Ohio about his record, his negatives get worse,” he said, stating that the goal is to get his negatives over 50 percent.

Strickland lost a bid for a second term as governor in the 2010 election, at the height of the economic recession sweeping the state and nation.

“My focus is on Ohio, and I know what the situation we inherited was,” Borges said, and stated Kasich had done much to turn the state’s economy around.

Pepper, on the other hand, said Borges was attributing national economic conditions to Ohio governors, and that Strickland was not responsible for the recession.

“Ohioans don’t believe the recession started in Columbus and they don’t believe the recovery started in Columbus,” he said. “Kasich is good at taking credit for a recovery that had more to do with who is president.”

Pepper said that despite the high numbers of ads running against Strickland from outside groups, he is still leading in polling.

“He’s still ahead, and that was after millions in attack ads by the Koch brothers,” he said.

Pepper said that if Kasich is the nominee, he welcomes the chance for the country to re-examine his record, citing criticism on education, the charter school scandal and what he called “weak anemic growth.”

Borges said the governor’s record speaks for itself.

“I would assume Democrats would decry things our Republican leaders have done in turning Ohio around,” he said.

Pepper said his position as party chair is to stay neutral, and noted that he has attended events for both Sanders and Clinton. He said, however, that he understood the “unique situation” Borges is in with the state’s governor in the running. Last month, the Ohio Republican Party endorsed Kasich in the primary race.

He said, however, he expects the Republicans to nominate either Trump or Cruz.

“And, boy, do I have an easier time supporting people on my side, if that’s the case.,” Pepper said.

Borges said Democrats will have a tough time defending their party’s nominee in the fall, and said the choice between Clinton and Sanders was “between a candidate under FBI investigation or a socialist.”

He also questioned the age of Clinton, 68, Bernie Sanders, 74, and Ted Strickland, 74, referring to Democrats as “the party of septuagenarians.”

“This is the party of young people?” he said.

He was asked what it would mean for his efforts in the fall if Trump, 69, the current Republican frontrunner, were the party’s nominee.

“My personal opinion is Donald Trump is not going to be the nominee, so I’m not concerned,” he said.