Cincinnati, Ohio — Rob Portman represented the Cincinnati suburbs in the U.S. House for over a decade and as he takes the stage at Memorial Hall on Monday, he gets a hometown welcome. His wife, Jane, beams in the first row. She has been on the trail with her husband all day, beginning that morning at a rally in a barn outside Columbus, then onto Wilmington, a town devastated by the recession. A couple years ago, the DHL Express plant packed up, leaving thousands there out of work.
Things in Cincinnati are brighter, but not by much. In the park across from the GOP event, homeless men and women roam, asking for handouts and huddling together as the cool evening air whistles though the trees. It is, unfortunately, an increasingly common sight in cities across the Buckeye State, where the jobless rate, at 10 percent, hovers above the national average.
Portman, with his neatly brushed gray hair, brown slacks, and crisp blue shirt, is relaxed, and speaks with ease for a few minutes about fiscal issues, Ohio’s unemployment problems, and the importance of private-sector growth. His tone is serious, reflecting the tenor of the times, but optimistic nonetheless. Much of his brief talk is also dedicated to boosting John Kasich, a fellow former GOP congressman, who’s in the final stretch of a tight gubernatorial race.
Unlike Kasich, Portman is mostly on cruise control these days. His U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Lee Fisher, Ohio’s lieutenant governor, is all but over. The RealClearPolitics poll average shows him up by 18.5 points. Though he is an insider — a former White House counsel, U.S. trade representative, and White House budget director — Portman has coasted upon the Tea Party wave. He has also been able to build a broad coalition: Earlier in the day, the crowd at the barn included both Tea Party folks and moderate Republicans like retiring Sen. George Voinovich, the man Portman hopes to succeed.
As the evening comes to a close in Cincinnati, the local-news crews pack up their cameras and the GOP faithful begin to file out. Portman lingers by the stage, shaking hands with local activists, many of whom he knows by name. Some have stories of economic heartache to share; others just wish him good luck. Before he leaves, he ducks into a dusty room off to the side, strewn with linoleum tables and decaying wood décor. He grabs a chair at a small table, and offers me another. Outside, through the window, sits his campaign’s white RV, decorated with thousands of his supporters’ signatures.
“Fire away, man,” Portman tells me. I ask about the economy: Just how will be able to stir some growth in this state should he win a seat in the upper chamber? “You’ve got to come up with policies that encourage people to hire,” he says. “If you look at what’s happening in Ohio today, everything that is coming out of the federal government is discouraging hiring.” He points to Obamacare, “the number-one issue I’ve been hearing about,” and says that small-business owners across the state are choosing not to hire because of the associated health-care costs “embedded” with each new employee. “They just can’t afford it,” he laments.
Beyond health care, Portman says the state’s economy is being hobbled by fear. Business owners, he says, are “scared” of what the Obama administration will push for next, be it cap-and-trade energy legislation, card check, or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. “You’ve got to figure out how to move Washington toward a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda — a laser-like focus on jobs.”
Portman also worries that the debt and deficits are another Washington problem that will continue to hurt Ohio unless addressed. “It’s affecting the economy today,” he says. “It’s like a sponge. It’s taking private capital into government borrowing. . . . It’s an immediate, economic issue that’s been a target of our campaign from the beginning.”
Portman pauses, breaking off from his litany about the hurdles ahead. “You know, I talk about this on the campaign trail a lot, and should have more today: Giving people in Ohio hope.” Despite “all of our problems,” he says, the state can grow and succeed in a globalized world. “The worth ethic is still there. The innovative spirit is, too, if the government is willing to provide people with the right climate for growth. People are still willing to start something and take a risk. It’s not like what made Ohio great in the past isn’t still there.”
While Portman seems ready to lead, is the Senate GOP? I ask him about Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader who hails from Kentucky, just to the south of where we sit. “I think he is very much ready,” Portman says. “I think he probably figures that he’s going to end up with at least 45 seats. I mean, you look around the country and it would be hard to imagine [Republicans] not winning enough races to get to 45. The question is whether we can get to 51.”
Regardless of whether the GOP wins Senate control, Portman is looking forward to rolling back the Obama agenda. For example, he says, “let’s assume that the Republicans take a majority in the House. We will have some opportunities: They will be sending legislation to the Senate that will start to turn things around on energy, health care, education, taxes, and spending. That’s what I’m going to be fighting for.”