Columbus, Ohio — Ohio Stadium, or “The Shoe,” is a sea of red and white as fans stream in to see the Buckeyes face off against the University of Tulsa. Football here is a quasi-religious experience. But today, another set of fans is here. The school’s baseball team, drinking beer and lounging under a tent outside the stadium, starts cheering when a 60-year-old man materializes in its midst, chanting, “Rob! Rob! Rob!” — and then, moments later, “Port-man! Port-man! Port-man!”
The unlikely subject of their fandom is Rob Portman, Ohio’s junior senator. He prefers sports like kayaking and mountain biking, but as he awkwardly swings a make-believe bat in the team’s direction, they only cheer more loudly. Portman is up for reelection in what was supposed to be a grueling battle against the state’s former Democratic governor, Ted Strickland. But he has found support in unlikely places around the state: from college sports teams, yes, but also from a number of unions that had never before endorsed a Republican in Ohio, and which are backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.
That helps in part to explain why many are beginning to write off a race once expected to be one of the most competitive in the country as a lock for the GOP. “It’s not over yet, but things are looking really, really, really good,” says Matt Borges, the chairman of the Ohio Republican party. They didn’t always. In fact, every public poll conducted through the end of May had Portman either tied or trailing Strickland, in one case by a nine-point margin. But the latest Quinnipiac University survey, released on Friday, has Portman up by eleven points. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a super PAC run by associates of Senate minority leader Harry Reid recently canceled millions of dollars worth of ad buys on Strickland’s behalf, and the executive director of the DSCC, Tom Lopach, reportedly conceded on Friday that “Portman has run a damn fine race.”
He has managed to avoid the tough challenge that was widely expected in a year when many of his colleagues are struggling, and his campaign has become something of a guide to success for Republicans campaigning in the Trump era. “Of anybody, he has had the toughest tightrope to walk between Kasich, Clinton, and Trump,” says Randy Evans, the Republican national committeeman from Georgia, who has kept close tabs on the race. “Somebody should write a textbook just based on his campaign, because that is how you run a Senate campaign.”
It should’ve been a rough summer for Portman, the embodiment of the moderate Republican establishment in a year that has favored outsiders. A blueblood and a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan law school, Portman prides himself on his political moderation and counts George H. W. Bush as his political hero. He’s a pragmatist who talks about how great it is to “get things done” even though there’s a Democrat in the White House. In his first term, he focused almost exclusively on non-controversial matters such as job training, human trafficking, and the opioid epidemic. As a result, he has avoided partisan knife fights and amassed a slew of legislation to his name, legislation he points to on the campaign trail as proof of his ability to make progress in a dysfunctional town. His Democratic counterpart, Senator Sherrod Brown, hasn’t said a bad word about him on the campaign trail, and you almost get the sense that Brown likes Portman and won’t be crestfallen if he wins another term. “I will tell you Sherrod has been a very good partner on a number of legislative issues,” Portman says.
He lobbied to bring the Republican convention to Cleveland, and then the party’s primary voters nominated Trump, who is everything he is not. In the midst of the convention, Trump picked a fight with Ohio governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse him. Portman, who has endorsed Trump, has a knack for avoiding controversy and conflict, and he spent the convention doing community service and making noises about how he had envisioned things this way all along. And in the following weeks, as Trump picked a fight with a dead soldier’s family and reiterated his charge that President Obama was the founder of ISIS, polls began to show him dragging down Republicans across the country. But Portman cemented his lead.
He is fiercely competitive — he pauses at one point to tell me how many more supporters his campaign turned out at a handful of local parades than Strickland’s did — and the moment the midterms ended in November 2014, he began running for reelection. If his wonkish attention to detail makes him boring, a label he chafes at, it has also made him a menace on the campaign trail. He began assembling a team in January 2015 and since then has raised more money — nearly $14 million — than any of his Republican colleagues. “He has played every card perfectly,” says a top Republican strategist.
When Portman’s campaign manager, Corry Bliss, touched down in Ohio in January 2015, polls had Portman trailing badly, and Bliss realized that Portman was more the challenger than the incumbent. The first-term senator had about 60 percent name ID; Strickland, a former congressman and governor who lost to Kasich in 2010, was known by 90 percent of Ohio residents. In a cycle where Senate campaigns are getting little help from the top of the ticket or from the Republican National Committee, a methodical ground game and a TV-advertising blitz have changed that. Bliss says the campaign will have knocked on 5 million doors in Ohio by Election Day. To put that in perspective, the RNC says it has knocked on 4.4 million doors nationwide thus far, which means that by November, the Portman campaign may have knocked on as many doors in Ohio as the GOP has across the country.
Portman is a pragmatist who works to appeal to all factions.
#share# Bliss has also hyper-localized the race, which has inured it to some of the national trends. The campaign has sliced and diced the Ohio electorate into 22 subsets and is targeting them based on the issues most important to them — essentially running about two dozen city-council races rather than one Senate campaign aimed at the state’s 11 million Ohio voters. “There are the 65,000 voters in the Toledo area whose chief concern is stamping out a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that has polluted drinking water,” Bliss says. “When we knock on those doors, we talk to them about Rob’s work on Lake Erie. And when they go online, they get ads about Lake Erie. And when they turn on TV, they see ads about Lake Erie.” In southern Ohio, where opioid abuse has skyrocketed, voters hear about Portman’s work on the issue, including the federal legislation he cosponsored, which President Obama signed into law in July.
Ohio’s hunters have gotten the message, too. At a sportsmen’s dinner on Saturday evening, where auction items included fans and fountains in the shape of wild turkeys, Jeff Herrick, 59, a former Division of Wildlife district manager, praised Portman for “leading the charge trying to keep the Asian carp out of Lake Erie.” A pamphlet on each plate touted his push to open more federal land for hunters, anglers, and trappers, and featured a picture of him in head-to-toe camouflage with a rifle in one hand and a dead turkey slung over his shoulder. By dinnertime, he had changed out of his Ohio State polo shirt and into shirtsleeves and hiking boots, and he regaled the crowd with a story about how his great grandfather passed away on a duck hunt — with a smile on his face. “So that’s the Portman family lore, that that’s the best way to go, in a duck blind,” he said.
Mike “Cooter” Frawley, a 56-year-old toolmaker from Clark County, stops Portman on his way out to thank him for his service. Frawley is stout, with a long beard and a ponytail, and is clad in a Trump-Pence T-shirt and a hat emblazoned “HILLARY FOR JAIL.” And yet the Portman campaign is also handing out, at Clinton rallies across the state, literature advertising his union endorsements. Bliss says he’s gotten 397 people to sign up for Portman yard signs at those events. “We cede nothing to Ted Strickland — no ground, no issue, no nothing,” he says. “We are going to win his old congressional district” in the heart of industrial Ohio.
#related# Demographic changes have also helped Portman and hurt Strickland. Ohio used to be considered the archetypical bellwether state because it resembled the country at large, but it is now whiter and poorer, with a median household income about $5,000 below the national average. Portman reached out to several of the state’s unions, all of which backed Strickland in his previous races, and he has gotten endorsements from the Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the United Mine Workers, and the Fraternal Order of Police. The endorsements are evidence not only that the GOP is increasingly the home of downscale, blue-collar workers, but also that the Democratic party has pushed them away. Strickland first ran for Congress in 1976 as a pro-gun, pro-coal Democrat. After landing at a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. following his governorship, he had a difficult time explaining where he stood when he was challenged from the left in the Democratic primary by a candidate who supported gun-control restrictions and clean-energy technology.
Regardless of what’s happening on the presidential level, Portman is proof that it’s still good to be a part of the political establishment. For Republicans, who are now able to focus their attention and resources elsewhere, boring never looked so good.
— Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.
EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.