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Betty Sutton and the Big Spender

Ohio Rep. Betty Sutton (D) is in a serious race against self funding auto dealer Tom Ganley.

Betty Sutton shouldn't be in any trouble this November.

The second-term Democratic Congresswoman from northeastern Ohio sits in a district that President Barack Obama won by 15 points in 2008 and has been represented by members of her party for more than two decades.

When Sutton emerged from a contested Democratic primary fight in 2006 against -- among others -- wealthy shopping center heiress Capri Cafaro -- most political strategists wrote the district off.

Until Tom Ganley came along, that is.

Ganley, a wealthy car dealer, had been running a quixotic primary campaign for the Senate against former Rep. Rob Portman this cycle before he was convinced by House recruiters to bring his candidacy (and his wallet) to a race against Sutton.

Ganley said he was initially attracted to the Senate because it was an open seat situation -- Sen. George Voinovich (R) is retiring -- but after receiving favorable results in a poll against Sutton decided to make the switch to the district in which he has lived for the past 37 years.

"If you think you can make a difference, you have to get there," explained Ganley in an interview with the Fix after his race won our latest "Choose your own House race" contest.

(Make sure to check out past winners including Virginia's 5th district and Arizona's 8th.)

Ganley's candidacy has Republicans intrigued and Democrats worried.

At the heart of both of those emotions is Ganley's significant personal wealth, which comes primarily from owning the "largest automotive empire in the state of Ohio" in the candidate's own words.

To date, he has loaned his campaign $6.5 million but paid back (to himself) $3.7 million of that, leaving him with a personal stake of $2.8 million in the race. Of that, he has $2.7 million on hand.

Ganley's personal giving -- an advantage for any candidate -- is a larger factor in his favor in this race for two reasons.

The first is Sutton's less-than impressive cash collection operation. She ended June with less than $600,000 on hand after raising just over $400,000 in the second quarter of the year and a meager $135,000 in the first three months of 2010.

A Democratic strategist familiar with Sutton's campaign explained that the incumbent had never been a strong fundraiser -- and never had to be -- during her eight years in the state House and, after her 2006 primary win, coasted to general election victories with 61 and 65 percent in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

"She understands what this means," the source said regarding Ganley's personal wealth, adding that the $400,000-plus quarter Sutton put together between April 1 and June 30 marked a "sea change from where she has been in the past".

The second reason Ganley's money matters is that the district is entirely covered by the costly Cleveland media market. That means that Ganley will likely be able to fund weeks of ads unchallenged by Sutton who lacks the financial wherewithal to match him ad for ad.

The Sutton source wondered aloud why Ganley hadn't already begun his television advertising for the fall given the Democrat's cash position; "There are things he could have been doing in the past four and a half months that he hasn't done," said the strategist.

And, it's worth noting that the Cleveland market will be flooded with ads this fall with a competitive Senate and House race on the ballot -- almost certainly making it a bit more difficult for Ganley (or any candidate) to break through the clutter.

For Sutton, the challenge of the fall campaignis to turn Ganley's wealth against him -- casting him as an out-of-touch businessman not interested in the well-being of the average 13th district resident.

"My opponent is a car salesman who made his fortune by taking advantage of middle class families," said Sutton, adding that the "deceitful, fraudulent and unethical business practices" employed by Ganley will become a major focal point of the contest this fall.

Sources close to Sutton note that Ganley's business record is filled with information that can and will be used against him; "Political graveyards are full of multimillionaire candidates whose checkbooks weren't big enough to buy their way out of their baggage," said one.

One other point Sutton is sure to harp on: Ganley's auto dealerships benefited from the "Cash for Clunkers" program even as he spoke out against the growth of the federal government into the private sector.

Ganley insisted that "'Cash for Clunkers' did not create any jobs" and that, while last August was a terrific month for sales, his dealerships did not wind up selling any more cars by year's end.

In a year where incumbents are in the cross-hairs, the race may well come down to not whether voters like or trust Ganley but rather how they feel about Sutton.

Sutton has a long resume in politics -- she was first elected to the Barberton City Council in 1989 and spent nearly a decade in the state House -- and it remains to be seen whether voters will regard it as a positive or a negative.

"She's running for a job, I'm not," says Ganley -- summarizing the insider versus outsider lens through which he hopes voters view the race.

Sutton insisted that her experience working in the community means that "people know I will stand up for them", adding: "Now more than ever that's what they are looking for."

Democrats have to hope she's right.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 19, 2010; 2:07 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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