Facing the prospect of handing one of their best opportunities for picking up an Ohio Senate seat to a first-time candidate with exploitable background issues, Democrats are throwing a Hail Mary pass in the 3rd Senate District.
The Franklin County Democratic Party took the unusual step last week of endorsing a write-in candidate over the Democrat who will appear on the May 8 primary ballot.
Tina Maharath, the candidate whose name will be printed on the May ballot, and Katherine Chipps, the party-endorsed write-in candidate, are both from Canal Winchester.
The 3rd District, which includes much of eastern Franklin County, went for Hillary Clinton by 11 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. This year, Democrats were excited about their preferred Senate candidate: Nathan Dowds, an Army veteran.
But Dowds ran into problems with his nominating petitions and was unable to secure 50 certified signatures to qualify for the ballot.
That left one Democrat on the ballot: Maharath, 27, a former intern with the U.S. Senate and Ohio House who was born and raised in the Columbus area. Her parents fled the southeast Asian nation of Laos following the Vietnam War.
Although Maharath is an eager candidate, she has issues in her background that Republicans with a huge fundraising advantage will be eager to exploit, including bankruptcy and a 2007 incident when, as a 17-year-old, she was charged as a juvenile in a hit-and-run crash that killed a bicyclist. She also is a prolific writer in online forums.
The bicycle crash occurred two years after Maharath's mother and two teenage brothers were killed in a highway crash in West Virginia.
"I've been through hell and back, so this is not something that I can't handle," Maharath said of any future attack ads. "It's time to step up and be the spoken voice of the unspoken."
However, instead of backing Maharath, the county Democratic Party endorsed Chipps, 39, who decided to run a write-in campaign after Dowds was initially disqualified. She is a co-owner of Grassroots Strategies, a union print shop that designs campaign material for Democrats in the county.
"At this point, even though it's going to be a challenge to get a write-in candidate over someone who is already on the ballot, we thought she would be our best candidate moving forward," party Chairman Michael Sexton said.
"She's got a pretty good plan that she's laid out to her path to victory. She's a hard worker."
Sexton said he has not tried to persuade Maharath to withdraw.
Maharath said that in the current political climate, she had hoped the party would back a woman of color. However, she said, she understands why the party doesn't want to spend resources defending her from the expected attack ads.
The race will test the power of a county party endorsement: Chipps' name will appear on the party's sample ballot that is mailed to registered Democrats in Franklin County.
"I plan on getting out as much as possible," Chipps said. "We are putting together volunteers to knock on as many doors as we can before the primary and will be sending out quite a bit of mail."
The primary winner will take on state Rep. Anne Gonzales (R-Westerville), who after eight years is looking to swap chambers.