Portman-Strickland Senate Race Finally Set in Ohio

Portman-Strickland Senate Race Finally Set in Ohio
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WESTERVILLE, Ohio – Sen. Rob Portman took the stage in a high school gym here Monday night to introduce his governor, John Kasich, whom he endorsed for president on the eve of the crucial Ohio primary.

“John Kasich inherited a state and frankly, our state was in the ditch,” Portman told the several hundred Ohioans in attendance. “Under Ted Strickland, we had lost 350,000 jobs. Our unemployment was above the national average. Unfortunately, we were 48th in the country in job creation -- 48th. He was also left with an $8 billion deficit. Unprecedented in the history of our state."

Portman then turned to Kasich’s record, touting Ohio’s recovery under the governor before turning over the microphone to Kasich’s wife and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The senator’s brief speech was a strong warm-up act, energizing the crowd in the gymnasium. But it also gave a preview of what Portman will likely be saying on the stump for the next eight months as he fends off a challenge from Strickland for his U.S. Senate seat in one of the most high profile, important elections this year.

Republicans hold a four-seat majority in the Senate, but are defending 24 seats, including six in states President Obama won twice. Strickland coasted to victory in his primary Tuesday night. Now, he’ll be running in one of the most closely watched and expensive races of the cycle.

Portman and his campaign wasted no time going on offense against Strickland. They released a video Tuesday night with quotes from Ohio Democrats criticizing his record during the primary, and plan to re-launch a website Wednesday morning -- calling Strickland a “retread” -- that includes online video ads against him.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics Monday night at Kasich’s rally, Portman doubled down on his criticism of his opponent’s tenure as governor and as a congressman. He also said he thinks national security issues, which are at the forefront of many voters’ minds, will be crucial come November, and criticized Strickland for his support of the Iran nuclear deal signed last summer.

“Ted Strickland has had a lousy record and it was particularly tough on working families in Ohio who took the brunt of it,” Portman said. “We don’t want to go back to that and we’re finally starting to dig out and he was a very ineffective congressman and he was a failure as a governor.”

Strickland, on the other hand, is confident in his campaign. He coasted to victory in his primary against an upstart city councilman without needing to spend on TV advertising, and national polls consistently show him either tied or slightly leading Portman.

In a speech at an Ohio Democratic Party dinner Sunday night, Strickland criticized Portman’s record on trade, Social Security, education and campaign finance issues. Democrats argue that Strickland, a former governor with sky-high name recognition and a positive favorability rating, is the ideal candidate to run against the incumbent.

“It’s almost taken for granted how uniquely well positioned we are with Gov. Strickland in the race,” Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said Sunday. “Most chairs in the country would love to have a candidate challenging an incumbent senator who started the race ahead."

Strickland also said he thinks the environment within the Republican Party this year, where voters have elevated Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz over establishment, mainstream candidates, will be a major boost for him in the fall.

“I think this is going to be a good year for Democrats and I think consequently it will be a good year for me in this Senate race,” Strickland said in his speech at the state party dinner. “I will benefit from what’s happening with what I would sort of describe as the disintegration of the national Republican Party."

Strickland’s campaign manager, Rebecca Pearcey, wrote in a memo released after his primary victory that the nominee’s "deeply rooted brand as a champion for working people perfectly fits the populist mood of the electorate, while Senator Portman’s central identity as an ‘ultimate insider’ and a ‘dedicated outsourcer’ represents exactly what Ohioans hate about Washington.”

Portman’s campaign, however, is preparing for a potentially less-than-popular top of the ticket. In a memo being sent out Wednesday morning, obtained early by RCP, campaign manager Corry Bliss touted the operation’s grassroots efforts, targeting more than 1 million voters and creating coalitions of voters like sportsmen and students who back Portman. Bliss accused Strickland of “hiding” and hoping to ride Hillary Clinton’s coattails in the state.

“Hoping to be dragged across the finish line is not a strategy for winning,” Bliss said in the memo.

Supreme Court Nominee

Strickland, like Democrats nationally, sees the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia as a critical issue to this race. Portman and his Republican colleagues have agreed that because America is in the midst of an election season, Obama should not fill the vacancy. They have vowed not to hold meetings, hearings or a vote for anyone Obama nominates.

“That’s an extreme, extreme position and I think it’s, for one thing, I think it’s a real insult to the president,” Strickland told RCP Sunday. “It’s just one more example of how some Republicans don’t want to accept the fact that Barack Obama is in fact the president of this country."

Strickland said the issue would be important to both party bases come November, and he believes it will help mobilize his base to support him in high numbers. He also pointed to polling that showed a majority of independents think Republicans should go through the confirmation process.

“I think it will be a very live issue and maybe will become even more so the closer we get to the election, because the Supreme Court is a big deal and I think people, many people, understand its importance. But I think its importance will become increasingly clear as this plays out,” Strickland said.

Portman, however, has been steadfast in his position that the next president should name Scalia’s replacement. He said it would be a “mistake” to fill the seat amid a contentious presidential election.

“All I’m saying is let’s let the people have a voice on this,” Portman said. “Let’s let the American people actually weigh in on this.” He later added: “Why is [Strickland] so afraid of allowing the people’s voice to be heard?”

Trade Is a Key Ohio Issue

One of the most talked about issues leading up to Tuesday’s presidential primary in Ohio was trade – both past international trade agreements and the one before Congress now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade is a pivotally important concern in a state that lost more than 100,000 jobs to nations involved in the TPP trade agreement last year, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Both candidates have a long history with trade. Portman supported NAFTA as a congressman in the 1990s, while Strickland voted against it. Portman also served as the U.S. trade representative during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Strickland called trade “the defining issue between the two of us” and said it’s one he plans to highlight during the general election campaign. In his speech to the Ohio Democratic Party Sunday night, he called Portman “the best senator China’s ever had.” Though Portman has come out against the TPP, Strickland criticized him for voting to “fast-track” that agreement, meaning it gets an up-or-down vote in Congress without the ability to amend it.

Democrats were eager to attack Portman on trade six years ago, however, and Portman won that election by nearly 20 points. In the interview with RCP, he defended his record on the issue, including by highlighting that he brought China before an international court for the first time ever in an effort to help U.S. workers, a suit he won. He also touted his work in the Senate fighting China’s currency manipulation. He called Strickland’s China remarks “offensive” and said the former governor is “against exports.”

“Ted’s against exports, there’s no question about it. He wants to hurt Ohio farmers and Ohio workers,” Portman said. “One out of every three acres is now planted for export in Ohio; 25 percent of our factory jobs are now export jobs and he wants to pull the rug out from under them.”

Portman and Strickland’s race is already one of high-profile contests in the country during a cycle where most of the oxygen has been consumed by the presidential race. The incumbent had $13 million in cash on hand at the end of last year, while Strickland has struggled in fundraising, holding just $2 million at the same point.

Kasich’s victory in the Ohio presidential primary was a big win for Portman as well, as he endorsed and campaigned for his home state governor. If Kasich can carry the momentum from his win into the weeks ahead and somehow win the nomination, it would spare Portman from running with Trump at the top of the ticket. That outcome is unlikely, however, as Trump remains the heavy favorite after winning Florida Tuesday night.

Regardless, Portman insisted that he isn’t concerned about the name sitting above his on the ballots in November. "I know [Kasich] can do it, I’ve seen him do it. But for us, we’re going to run a strong campaign regardless of who’s at the top of the ticket,” he said. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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