By LOU WILIN
Robert Sprague is working 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, to go where no one from Findlay has ever gone.
The state representative is running for election on Nov. 6 to a statewide office, state treasurer. Sprague, a Republican, will face Democrat Rob Richardson of Cincinnati.
Nobody from Findlay has won election to a statewide post.
Sprague’s great-grandfather, Ralph D. Cole, a former U.S. representative from Findlay, tried. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for U.S. senator in 1914. Cole’s Republican opponent was Warren G. Harding, who became U.S. senator and then president.
Sprague is traveling around the state to raise support and money.
“You kind of put your life on hold for a time when you’re doing this,” he said.
His chauffeur is Findlay native Troy Quinlan. The car is a kind of mobile office.
“Typically he drives, and I’m on the computer or making calls, whatever I have to do that day,” Sprague said. “Otherwise, there would be five or six hours of the day that’s just wasted.”
“We’ve visited all 88 counties,” he said. “And we’ve gone there to build a grassroots organization from the ground up and it’s taken us two and a half years.”
No novice to politics, Sprague has been elected state representative three times.
But that is not comparable to running statewide.
Nothing in Ohio politics is, said Justin Buchler, associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.
“Your first statewide race is just a big step up, period,” Buchler said. “There’s really no way around that.”
Sprague’s calendar is not his own. It has become the domain of his political director, Zach Crawford of Findlay, and campaign manager, Jody Foltyn of Columbus.
“They say, ‘Look, we go to this event. We’ve got to meet with this group.’ Typically they will build a day around a couple of events. We’ll be in a certain area of the state,” he said. “And then, we’ll know that we need to have a meeting with such-and-such group. So we’ll schedule that in between the events.”
So many hours on the road, so little time at home. Sprague and his wife, Amanda, have five children, ages 16 to 6.
“It’s tough, because I’m gone a lot. So, a lot of that falls on my wife,” Sprague said. “She’s been an absolute angel. She’s a great mom. It’s tough with me being gone so much.”
Sprague’s parents, Bob and Connie Sprague of Findlay, have been “extremely helpful,” Amanda Sprague said.
“We try to divide and conquer. Grandma takes one (child). Grandpa will take two. I’ll take two, just so we can run all over town between baseball and soccer and those things, swim team and all of those activities,” she said.
Friends and carpools also have been helpful in getting the kids where they need to be.
“Of course, Robert doesn’t make every end-of-the-year school performance and recital and all those things, but he tries to,” Amanda said. “We take a lot of pictures and videos and try to keep him in the loop. It is busy.”
Sprague and his family keep reminding themselves it will all be over after the election on Nov. 6.
Rugby and cricket
Until then, Sprague keeps working hard, logging miles and hours. He said he tries to win people’s hearts and minds with his proposal to replace government grants with more private investment to finance trials of new programs to solve society’s problems.
If a new program proves successful at, say, reducing infant mortality rates among racial minorities, then state government would reimburse the private investors for the initial costs and then would fund the program continuously, he said.
What Sprague needs to do most, according to veterans and experts of statewide politics, is build name recognition.
On the bright side for Sprague, his opponent, Richardson, faces the same challenge. Richardson has never been elected to a public office.
To get name recognition, Sprague needs to convince the deep-pocketed to donate money to his campaign. But that is part of a catch-22: It takes a lot of money to get name recognition, but it takes name recognition to get a lot of money.
“Donors don’t want to give to candidates who don’t have name recognition,” Buchler said.
Sprague’s home turf, northwest Ohio, is not known for raising big money for statewide candidates, said Betty Montgomery, who once walked in Sprague’s shoes. Montgomery, who was from Wood County, was state attorney general from 1995 to 2003, and state auditor from 2003 to 2007. She is a Republican.
The big money comes from Ohio’s three big Cs: Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Most holders of statewide offices in recent decades have had a close tie with one of the big Cs.
“You have more manufacturing, more larger corporations and more people who are willing to raise a lot of money in larger chunks,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the amount of time and work she had to put into raising money was one of the big surprises she faced in her first statewide campaign. She also needed help to raise money, as does Sprague.
“Any statewide candidate has to have people around them that understand the process and the people,” Montgomery said.
Sprague said his campaign has been drawing on the support and contacts of other Republican lawmakers around the state. They are an important resource for Sprague because Ohio is diverse, Montgomery said.
“I used to kid about if I left Columbus and headed north, the politics was like a game of rugby. It was knees and elbows and dirt in your face and fingers in your eye,” Montgomery said.
“If you went south from Columbus toward Cincinnati it was more of a cricket game where everybody was appropriately dressed in white suits and everybody followed the rules and there were a certain number of people who had keys to the door to the kingdom. If you persuaded them, that meant the people would open the door to polite company and support.”
It’s more expensive to run statewide in Ohio than in many other states, said Ted Strickland, who came from a non-three-C area, southeastern Ohio, when he was elected governor in 2006.
Take Illinois, he said, which has more population and square miles than Ohio.
“The Chicago media market pretty much covers the larger part of the voting population in Illinois,” Strickland said. “That’s not true in Ohio.”
Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Youngstown all have separate media markets.
“And then, in order to cover certain parts of the state, you’ve got to go outside the state to West Virginia to have local TV coverage,” Strickland said.
A sobering reality hangs over Sprague’s campaign.
In the final weeks before Election Day, events beyond his control in Columbus or Washington, D.C., could decide his fate.
It’s something Sprague said he came to understand after he started his bid for state treasurer.
“There could be something that happens in the environment, some political issue that comes up, that either really helps you, or really hurts you or your party,” he said. “You have no control over it.”
Sprague is right, said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
“President Trump and how people feel about him, pro and con, that is going to be very, very much at the front of voters’ minds in early November,” Beck said.
The success or failure of Republican candidates in “top of the ticket” races — for governor and U.S. senator — will tend to determine how Sprague does, Beck and Montgomery said.
“When you’re a downticket candidate, you are relying on the top of the ticket and, frankly, you’re relying on what is going on in Washington,” Montgomery said. “You can only control a percentage of what happens in getting elected, particularly when you are in those administrative offices, say treasurer or auditor, because the public doesn’t see them as much. So if the top of the ticket is struggling or isn’t out, moving around, or if there is something happening in the Trump administration, it can define you.”
Actually, very few things are in a candidate’s control, Buchler said.
“Most voters are partisans and they will vote their party ID. Most of the rest will sort of respond to national conditions, the state of the economy and things like that,” he said. “There aren’t very many voters who really respond to the strategic choices candidates make. Candidates just don’t have a lot of agency in campaigns.”
“Voters don’t really behave in as systematic and rational and thoughtful ways as a lot of people assume,” Buchler said.
Strickland knows all about it. The Democrat was elected governor in 2006 when Ohio Republicans were tainted by the Coingate scandal. He was defeated in 2010 after Ohio’s economy slumped during the national recession.
“I think timing is hugely important in every campaign. Things can fluctuate very quickly politically. There are some things you just cannot control,” Strickland said. “I’ve won elections and lost elections, and I’ve been the same person when I’ve won and lost. But the circumstances had been different.”
And so, Sprague is working and waiting.
“You’re going out. You’re doing all the right things. You’ve organized a great campaign team. You’ve funded it. You’ve developed a grassroots organization,” Sprague said. “And then you wait.”
“One of the things you do is you put your trust in the Lord,” Sprague said. “And you say, ‘Look, I’m going to work hard on the things I know I can control, and the rest of it I’m not going to worry about.'”
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