Political handicappers knew that lawmakers like Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH), Steve Driehaus (D-OH), Zack Space (D-OH) and John Boccieri (D-OH) would be in the Republican crosshairs for this election cycle. Few thought that sophomore Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH) would be among them.
Sutton is locked in a statistical dead heat with political neophyte and Republican nominee Tom Ganley. A Republican poll compiled by Ayres, McHenry and Associates last month showed Sutton pulling in 43 percent of the vote compared to Ganley's 41 percent. And, Ganley has significantly deeper campaign coffers than Sutton. For the last reporting period available, Ganley has nearly $2.7 million (much of it from his own bank account). Sutton boasts a paltry $600,000.
Ganley is an outsider who run a series of car dealerships in northeast Ohio. He bills himself as operating an "automotive empire." Sutton succeeded Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in the House in 2006 when he defeated then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH). She's polled more than 60 percent of the vote in both of her House contests. Before coming to Washington, Sutton served in the state legislature.
Usually veteran politicians with extensive legislative histories are on the hot-seat in competitive races. But in this year's contest, Democrats are trying to highlight a series of legal pockmarks that dot Ganley's business record.
Over the years, several of Ganley's employees have filed a series of discrimination claims. Former Ganley used car sales manager Kristy Burdue argues she wasn't paid as much as her male counterparts. Burdue was fired in July. She sued asking for "economic damages." The case awaits a jury trial.
Ganley awarded former employees Boris Osadciw and John Poulton compensatory damages after they sued for age discrimination. And a race discrimination case remains open. Ganley's dealerships have also faced lawsuits from upset customers arguing they were sold lemons or that Ganley's dealerships reneged on financing promises.
"Tom Ganley is a dishonest car salesman who got rich by lying, bullying and ripping off hardworking people in Ohio," said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In an email, Ganley campaign spokeswoman Meghan Snyder declined to comment about pending litigation involving Ganley. But she argued that things are going to happen when one runs auto dealerships for 42 years. Snyder said that some have falsely attacked the company and Ganley himself.
"Tom is very proud of his record," Snyder said. She noted that Ganley currently employees 1,000 people across 32 dealerships and sells close to 30,000 cars annually. His dealerships work on nearly a quarter of a million automobiles a year.
"I can assure you that Tom and the entire Ganley organization comply fully with all hiring and firing laws and all labor laws," Snyder said.
Moreover, Snyder turned fire on Sutton. On Capitol Hill, Sutton is known for burning through staff. For instance, at least nine different Sutton aides have handled press inquiries over the years.
"Ms. Sutton is no stranger to staff turnover," Snyder said.
A Democratic source who watches the race declared the comparison between Ganley and Sutton's employment issues to be "absurd."
"Only Tom Ganley has been sued over 400 times for discriminating against his employees and for ripping off his customers," the source said.
For their part, Ganley's campaign wants to voters to know about his work with the FBI to break up organized crime and his citation as the 2006 "Man of the Year" by the Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association.
President Obama speaks in Cleveland Wednesday, touting his efforts to restore Ohio's beleaguered economy. But the Sutton campaign says the Congresswoman won't be in attendance.