Magazine | October 10, 2016, Issue

Rob Portman’s Perfect Campaign

(Roman Genn)
The Ohio senator has surged by hyper-localizing his reelection bid

Columbus, Ohio — Ohio Stadium, or “The Shoe,” is a sea of scarlet, gray, 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 present. The school’s baseball team, drinking beer and lounging under a tent outside the stadium when a 60-year-old man materializes in its midst, starts cheering and chanting, “Rob! Rob! Rob!” — and then, moments later, “Port-man! Port-man! Port-man!”

The unlikely subject of this fandom is Rob Portman, Ohio’s junior senator. He prefers 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: from college sports teams, yes, but also from a number of unions that had never before endorsed a Republican in Ohio, and that are backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

That helps to explain his surprising success, and why many are beginning to write off as a lock for the GOP a race once expected to be one of the most competitive in the country. “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 look so bright. Every public poll conducted through the end of May had Portman either tied or trailing, in one case by a nine-point margin; the latest trio, from Bloomberg, CNN, and Suffolk University, have Portman up 17, 21, and 8 points respectively, and Democrats are starting to give up hope. 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. Tom Lopach, the executive director of the DSCC, has reportedly conceded that “Portman has run a damn fine race.”

With many of Portman’s Republican colleagues who are seeking reelection to the Senate still struggling, his campaign offers something of a guide to success for Republicans 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.”

It should’ve been a rough summer for Portman, the embodiment of the moderate Republican establishment in a year that has favored outsiders. He lobbied to bring the Republican convention to Cleveland, and then the party’s primary voters nominated Trump, who is everything he is not. During the convention, Trump picked a fight with Ohio governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse him or to help his campaign. Portman has endorsed Trump in the loosest possible way. He 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 even before Trump clinched the nomination. In the weeks that followed, as Trump feuded with the family of a dead soldier 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.

It helps that outside groups have put him at a $12 million advantage in independent expenditures, unleashing a barrage of television advertisements reminding Ohio voters why they booted Strickland out of office in 2010. That money has come from all corners of the party, from the super PAC funded by the Koch brothers to their ideological foes at the Chamber of Commerce. Some of his colleagues, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, have not had the same advantage, and have found themselves in tighter races in part because in both states Democrats are investing more than Republicans. 

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” despite the gridlock in Washington. He has avoided many of the partisan knife fights that have made the front pages and has amassed a pile of legislation to his name by focusing his efforts almost exclusively on non-controversial matters such as job training, human trafficking, and the opioid epidemic. Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, hasn’t said a bad word about him while doing the minimum amount of campaigning on Strickland’s behalf. You almost get the sense that Brown won’t be crestfallen if Portman wins another term. “I will tell you Sherrod has been a very good partner on a number of legislative issues,” Portman says.

All of this moderation belies a fiercely competitive nature — Portman 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 midterm elections ended in November 2014, Portman began assembling the best campaign team available. 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 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, he realized that Portman was more the challenger than the incumbent. The first-term senator had about 60 percent name recognition; Strickland, a former congressman and governor who lost to Kasich in 2010, was known by 90 percent of Ohio residents. In a cycle during which 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 helped Portman compensate for that deficiency. 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 so 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.

Bliss has also hyper-localized the race, which has immunized it to some of the national trends. The campaign has sliced and diced the Ohio electorate into 22 subsets and is essentially running about two dozen city-council races rather than one Senate campaign. One example: “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.”

Ohio’s hunters have gotten the message, too. At a sportsmen’s dinner outside Columbus 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 his advocacy on an obscure issue: “leading the charge trying to keep the Asian carp out of Lake Erie,” which would threaten some of the local — and most edible — fish. A pamphlet on each plate touted Portman’s 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 in the other. Portman regaled the crowd with a story about how his great-grandfather died 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, a stout man with a long beard and a ponytail, is clad in a Trump-Pence T-shirt and a hat emblazoned with Hillary for Jail. Asked what he likes to hunt, he responds, “Anything that moves.” And yet the Portman campaign is also handing out, at Clinton rallies across the state, literature advertising his endorsements from several of Ohio’s unions. Bliss says he’s gotten 397 people to sign up for Portman yard signs at those events.

Every union that has endorsed Portman has in past years endorsed Strickland, which underscores not only the elbow grease Portman has put into the race but also some demographic changes that are helping Republicans in Ohio. The state was once considered a bellwether because it resembled the rest of the country, but it is now whiter and poorer, with a median household income, in 2014, about $5,000 below the national figure of $53,657. The endorsements Portman has received from the Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Mine Workers 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 his governorship, Strickland landed at a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., which advocated gun-control measures and clean-energy regulations opposed by many of Ohio’s unions. He had a difficult time explaining where he stood when he was challenged from the left in the Democratic primary.

That helps to explain why Donald Trump, too, is performing well in Ohio, where his lead, however, an average of about 1.7 points, pales by comparison with Portman’s over Strickland. Portman’s race is a demonstration that while the top of the ticket matters, so too do individual candidates and their campaigns. For Republicans, who are now able to focus their attention and resources on other races, establishment and boring never looked so good.

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