In 2012, Republican incumbent Rob Portman was a Mitt Romney ally. The former Congressman and US Trade Representative was said to be considering a bid for the White House, but he put those rumors to rest in 2014 announcing that he would run for another Senate term. He cited the Republican majority after the 2014 midterm elections as the main reason.
Prior to that decision, Portman announced that his stance on gay marriage had changed and that he now supported it, although it should be achieved through the democratic process, not the courts. This about-face in his position was prompted by the fact he learned his son was gay. He immediately became a target of values voters in Ohio who felt betrayed by his reversal and the National Organization for Marriage launched a campaign against promising to run a conservative opponent in the 2016 primary.
Additionally, many Tea Party groups (there are 233 Tea Party-affiliated groups in the state) also felt betrayed since they had been instrumental in supporting him in his 2010 Senatorial run. Although organized opposition was not that great, they did resolve not to help Portman’s campaign in 2016. Regardless, Portman can count many Tea Party activists among the large number of endorsements he has received.
On the Democratic side, several names popped up as possible candidates with Cincinnati city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld being the first to declare. There were rumors that Congressman Tim Ryan would run and he did little to dispel those rumors. In the end he decided against a run and eventually former Governor Ted Strickland entered the race. Himself a former member of the House, he was defeated in his reelection bid in 2010 by current Republican Governor John Kasich. After his defeat, he eventually became president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an arm of a Hillary Clinton/George Soros think tank and political advocacy group. At the time, given his name recognition and ability to tap into an Ohio Democratic donor base, many believed that Strickland would clear the primary field.
The DSCC almost immediately began attacks on Portman soon after they endorsed the candidacy of Strickland over Sittenfeld. The Ohio Democratic Party also endorsed Strickland by a vote of 82-20. They portrayed Portman as a DC insider operative complicit in the limited government shutdown and supportive of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Not one to mud-sling, Portman has been on the counterattack since.
But first Strickland had to overcome Sittenfeld in the primary and it ended up a lopsided victory for him. On the Republican side, the conservative opposition to Portman never materialized and he walked to victory with 82% of the vote over some unknown candidate.
Now, the campaign has turned almost comical with both sides highlighting the political baggage of the other. Strickland has portrayed Portman as a political insider, beholden to national Republican leaders. In all truth, many pundits portray Portman as a consigliere to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They also note Portman’s large fundraising base as proof that he is beholden to special interests, not the residents of Ohio.
From Portman’s corner comes the counterattack. They describe Strickland as a politician who has been in or has been running for office since the 1970’s (it is true). Further, his campaign has suggested that he is basically a lobbyist and money-man for CAP and intimately tied to Hillary Clinton. Portman has brought in Corry Bliss to be his campaign manager. He resurrected the reelection chances of Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas.
Both sides expect the attacks to become greater as the general election nears. The Strickland campaign calls Portman “Beltway Bob,” while the Portman campaign calls Strickland “Retread Ted.” Strickland countered that Portman is the best Senator China has ever had over his support of granting China favored trade status.
Enter Donald Trump to turn an already interesting race into a potential circus. Portman had endorsed fellow Ohioan John Kasich in the GOP presidential primary. After Kasich dropped out, during a visit to Youngstown, Portman endorsed Trump as the presumptive nominee, but his campaign was quick to note that “Rob is his own man.” Portman won the GOP primary with 82% of the vote and a lot of those voters were Donald Trump supporters. He noted at the time their enthusiasm, especially among those who were voting in a primary for the first time. He also noted Trump’s rhetoric regarding a desire to work with Congress.
Soon after the endorsement, rumors started to circulate listing Portman as a possible running mate for Trump. He has dismissed those ideas. But nevertheless, it gave the Democratic Party more ammunition with which to attack Portman.
Trump lost the Ohio primary to John Kasich as most somewhat expected. The biggest surprises were out of the exit polls. Trump has very high negative ratings among Ohio voters. About 37% of voters said they voted for the candidate who shared their values. Among those voters, a dismal 9% voted for Trump. Even fourth place finisher Marco Rubio beat him in that category. Furthermore, almost 75% of Kasich supporters said they would vote for someone else other than Donald Trump if he was the nominee. That is a large chunk of the GOP electorate to lose if these figures hold. Even 50% would be bad.
This is compounded by another poll indicating that 40% of Ohio voters were unaware of Portman and that 50% of voters could not express an opinion since they did not know enough about him to form an opinion. That is an unusually large percentage of the electorate for a sitting Senator. Obviously, Portman has a higher profile in Washington DC circles than he does in his home state.
And that is what the Democratic Party is counting on. Voter turnout surges in presidential years and Ohio is no different. Republicans have a strong base of support in the suburbs of major cities- Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. If these voters decide to stay home rather than vote for Trump, then Portman’s chances of reelection decrease dramatically.
Obviously, Portman has the financial resources to fight an expensive battle. There are reports that the RSCC and Portman have devoted almost $15 million in reserved advertisement time for the general election. Strickland certainly has weaknesses- the rejection of him as Governor in 2010 and other activities. Of special note is his involvement with the Center for American Progress which has often been referred to as a Clinton government in exile. Many shady characters from John Podesta to Harold Ickes, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills have all worked for CAP in the past.
Polls out of Ohio show a very close Senate race. The average of seven polls- all conducted in 2016- show a dead heat between Strickland and Portman. In such cases, the coattail effect may be very important and that is why Portman, who looked so strong two years ago, is now on the endangered Republican incumbent list. In eight polls out of Ohio pitting Clinton against Trump, Clinton leads by an average of 2.9 percentage points.
Given the importance of Ohio and its status as a key swing state, the Presidential battle for their electoral votes will be intense. That $15 million in advertisement by Portman may get drowned out in the Clinton-Trump battle. This is a perfect storm brewing against Portman and he joins the ranks that include Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Mark Kirk in Illinois. If the GOP loses another incumbent Senator from the Rust Belt, or Upper Midwest or whatever you want to call it, then Trump will be the primary cause. A brighter light will be shined on Ohio this year and Portman may just find himself caught up in the resulting maelstrom. This is something that likely would not have happened had anyone but Donald Trump been the nominee.