Progressive surge on display in Ohio's Cordray-Kucinich primary

In the blue corner -- he was an unabashed liberal at a time when Democrats ran away and hid at the mention, and among...

Posted: May 9, 2018 10:13 AM
Updated: May 9, 2018 10:13 AM

In the blue corner -- he was an unabashed liberal at a time when Democrats ran away and hid at the mention, and among the party's first and most vocal critics of the Iraq War. He's campaigned on his support for single-payer health care and a statewide assault weapons ban.

And in another blue corner -- the preferred choice of the liberal lioness from Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he led the way in turning her vision for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into a reality during his more than five years as its director.

On Tuesday night, the two contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Ohio -- former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a two-time presidential candidate, and the recently departed CFPB boss, Richard Cordray -- will quit punching and wait on voters' blessing to lead the left in its race to replace term-limited, anti-Trump Republican Gov. John Kasich. (The winner will take on either GOP state Attorney General Mike DeWine or Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.)

But no matter the result, progressives have already scored a significant victory in the Midwestern bellwether, where the party's familiar conflicts -- often cast in shorthand as the Hillary-Bernie divide -- have been mostly hung on the ropes as Cordray and Kucinich fought out their campaign on a much narrower, mostly shared piece of political canvas. At the crux of their unexpectedly tight bout is, rather than any brooding, existential question about the future of the party, a case of differing personalities and approaches to policymaking.

While there is concern among some state Democrats about Kucinich's viability in November's general election, his backers insist that voters -- especially in a state President Donald Trump won by 8 points in 2016 -- are increasingly hungry for what Kucinich is selling (and has, for decades): the aggressive progressive model, quirks and all. The pre-Trump calculus, they argue, doesn't hold and the bounds of electability are, if not erased, then in need of some serious reconnoitering.

Cordray too has been fighting concerns over his demeanor.

Modest and wonky, often described as a prot-g- of Warren, he is, in this way at least, an almost mirror image of his bombastic opponent. But where they diverge on major issues, it tends to be in measures of degree. Kucinich, for example, has hammered away at Cordray's standing with the National Rifle Association (he received an A-rating in 2010), and the latter's refusal to categorically reject its mission.

In April, Cordray on the trail passed up a chance to reject the group, instead describing it as "a mix of things."

"They do good things that people like and they do some other things that people don't like," he said. "I think that's true of all organizations."

Cordray, though, is hardly a Second Amendment absolutist. He supports universal background checks and other restrictions opposed by the NRA, like a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines and bump fire stocks.

On health care, Kucinich is a proponent of single-payer coverage, or "Medicare for all," which helped earn him the support of Our Revolution, the political organization inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders. (The Vermont independent opted to stay out of the race himself.) Cordray has not gone as far, instead advocating for fixes and expansions to the Affordable Care Act, like beefing up state exchanges while maintaining Medicaid expansion and closing "coverage gaps" for those caught in between.

Kucinich has come under varying degrees of scrutiny over news he gave a paid speech in London to a group supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That, along with a past interview (conducted during his time as a Fox News contributor) of Assad in Damascus, has been a point of attack, though not enough to dissuade Cleveland's Plain Dealer from giving its endorsement, which came with the caveat that Kucinich "never again make nice" with the Syrian "butcher."

That kind of passing rebuke underlines the modest effect the criticism is expected to have on the final outcome. Still, the expectation as voters hit the polls is that, for all the hubbub around Kucinich, Cordray will emerge the winner, even if the margin isn't quite what many envisioned when he left the CFPB to launch his run. Kucinich is a known and, in some quarters, dear figure to many Ohio progressives. Before heading off to Congress, he was elected a state senator and, in his 20s, won national headlines as the "boy mayor" of Cleveland. He was, and remains, a stalwart of the relatively small and fragmented US anti-war movement.

Cordray can't compete on those terms, but his defiance of Trump and record as the chief federal consumer watchdog -- along with endorsements from NARAL Pro-choice Ohio and the state's largest organized labor organiztion, the Ohio AFL-CIO -- put him on steady ground with this year's hard-charging Democratic base.

But it is, perhaps more so than most would have imagined a decade ago, also shared ground with his opponent. For progressives, that means waking on Wednesday as winners -- yet again -- no matter who celebrates on Tuesday night.

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