Portman Shows How GOP Senators Can Outpace Trump

Portman Shows How GOP Senators Can Outpace Trump
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CINCINNATI – Former Gov. Ted Strickland stood with a half dozen veterans here to criticize his opponent, Republican Sen. Rob Portman, for his continued support of Donald Trump.

Strickland brought up Trump’s attacks on a gold star family and Sen. John McCain, and said his rival is “irresponsible” and lacks “courage” for endorsing the GOP presidential nominee.

The message has become a critical part of Strickland’s campaign to unseat Portman in the Senate, and at every possible opportunity he’s tied the incumbent to Trump, who is losing the state by several percentage points to Hillary Clinton.

But Thursday’s event was emblematic of how difficult it has been to get the message to take hold in the Buckeye State.

Strickland was surrounded by seven veterans supporting his campaign, but the speech was delivered to a small room in the National Association For Letter Carriers office here, filled only with a half dozen campaign staffers and a single reporter.

Meanwhile, Portman has opened up a sizable lead in the Senate race over the last month and is outpacing Trump by double digits in the state.

Republicans point to Portman’s campaign as an exemplar of how to run a down-ballot race in 2016 and think he’s positioned himself to win whether or not Clinton carries the state.

Democrats counter that Portman’s numbers are inflated and the race will tighten in the coming weeks. With Republicans holding a slim four-seat majority in the Senate and defending a number of toss-up races, Ohio could prove critical in deciding which party has the majority in the upper chamber next year.

Portman has endorsed Trump and stood by that decision, but he’s also kept his distance, not campaigning with him and denouncing the GOP candidate several times on his most controversial statements. Portman’s lack of equivocation on his endorsement, however, has helped keep the conversation off Trump, unlike in other key GOP races, including New Hampshire, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte has faced questions over her decision to support but not endorse the candidate, and in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Pat Toomey has yet to decide whether to endorse the nominee.

Portman has made a concerted effort to maintain his focus on issues in Ohio, particularly during his recent two-week RV tour through 30 counties in the state. Republicans praise his campaign infrastructure – he has 10 field offices and hundreds of grassroots volunteers who have helped the campaign contact more than three million voters.

The first-term senator said he’s based much of his campaign on President Obama’s presidential campaigns – sophisticated data and voter outreach, as well as establishing grassroots support in early 2015, rather than months before the election. Efforts like those will help him win swing and crossover voters, even those who won’t vote for Trump, Portman said during an interview with RealClearPolitics on his campaign RV last week.

“People are perfectly capable of making an informed decision,” Portman said. “I think these political scientists who say there are no more ticket splitters are just flat wrong. I think they underestimate at least the ability of Ohio voters to distinguish between candidates and to vote for the person and not the party. Independents rule the day here in Ohio, too. It’s not like you get elected by Democrats and Republicans. And there are absolutely swing voters."

Democrats, on the other hand, are convinced that while Portman has run ahead in the polls to this point, the lead is artificial. The GOP senator is leading the RCP average by 6.4 percent.

Democrats inside and outside Strickland’s campaign point to the GOP's flood of ad buys in Ohio and say it’s not surprising the incumbent’s ahead, and that it’s a testament to Strickland’s strength as a candidate that he’s still competitive in the contest.

According to one ad-buying source, the GOP has spent more than $33 million on TV advertising at this point in the cycle, double the $17 million Democrats have spent. A Politico story last week said Strickland has been attacked with more ad spending than any other Democrat in the country, including Clinton. And in an interview after his veterans’ event last week, Strickland said that shows just how viable a candidate he is.

“You don’t kick a dead dog. There’s a reason why they’re continuing to spend big money against me,” Strickland told RCP. “I am very much alive and they know that Rob Portman could very well lose this Senate seat. When they think that they’ve killed me, figuratively speaking, they’ll save some of those millions. So I feel pretty good. I think it says something really strong about my candidacy that I’ve endured that kind of criticism, much of it distorted and untrue and inaccurate, and yet I’m still in a competitive situation.”

Strickland faces an uphill battle to change the dynamic of the race 10 weeks from Election Day. The massive spending over the last year has allowed Republicans to define him while the former governor’s campaign wasn’t on the airwaves. The attacks have targeted his tenure as governor, when the state lost hundreds of thousands of jobs during the 2008 recession and Strickland nearly drained the state’s reserve fund.

Those attacks have had a clear impact on the Democratic candidate. A Quinnipiac survey in June of last year showed him with a 47 percent favorability rating, compared to 29 percent unfavorable, and up 6 points on Portman. A Monmouth University poll earlier this month showed Strickland down 8 points, and his favorability had flipped, with 23 percent holding a favorable opinion of him, and 37 percent saying unfavorable.

Strickland and other Democrats think the race is much narrower than the most recent polls, which show it between 7 and 9 points. They argue that once the Strickland campaign and other Democrats ramp up spending after Labor Day, Republicans won’t have quite the monopoly on the airwaves, which will make a difference in the polls. Strickland’s campaign just began airing advertisements this month, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved $10 million in fall advertisements, and the Senate Majority PAC, an outside group tied to Democratic Leader Harry Reid, has reserved $9.5 million.

“Truthfully, most candidates, with $35 million spent over a year with every ridiculous attack in the world, would be down by 20, never to be heard from again,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The campaign would be over. The fact that Ted is within 3 to 5 after all these attacks, actually, he’s in a very good position.”

Some Democrats, however, aren’t certain a more sustained effort from the campaign and outside groups will be enough to change the message. One Senate Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said he thought the race would tighten in the coming weeks, but conceded that it’s a different race than it was a few months ago.

“We know full well that Portman’s negatives are very, very potent and we know that Clinton is more likely than not to win the state just because Donald Trump is an epic disaster,” the strategist said. “But overcoming that kind of spending at this point in the cycle is just a very difficult task to accomplish.”

The effort started in an ad the Democrat’s campaign released two weeks ago. Strickland has released three ads: one on his background, one attempting to tie Portman to Trump on women’s issues, and a third in which Strickland seeks to counter the year-long narrative that his term as governor was defined by hundreds of thousands of jobs lost and a depleted rainy day fund.

“Well friends, I was governor during the great national recession and we all know it was raining pretty hard,” Strickland says in the ad. His campaign has also argued that he kept the economy afloat compared to the national average, and that jobs began coming back at the end of his tenure, before he lost re-election to John Kasich.

John Haseley, a former chief of staff to Strickland and current Athens County Democratic chairman, said Strickland would benefit from more aggressively countering that message, even though it’s coming after a year-long sustained Republican campaign.

“It seems extraordinary to me how easy it is for people to come off a perception that was made by millions of dollars in advertising on TV,” Haseley told RCP. “A simple explanation gets them off that position.”

Not everyone agrees, though. Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said she thinks it’ll be much harder to change views about Strickland’s time as governor.

“I think that they underestimated voter feelings about his administration,” Duffy said.

Republicans think they’ve focused enough attention on this race to put them on solid ground until Election Day.

“I don’t think this is a competitive race anymore,” and hasn't been since mid-August, said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist in the state who worked on Portman’s campaign six years ago. 

Portman, however, said he’s not taking his foot off the gas. “We’re going to continue to sprint right through the finish line. We’re not going to back down one bit,” he said when asked if he thought his lead was becoming insurmountable.

While other Republican senators in tight races have been dragged down by Trump’s falling poll numbers, Portman pointed out that Ohio is much closer in the presidential race and said he thinks Trump can still win the state. If that happens, it will be much harder for Strickland to overcome his current deficit. But if Trump loses, Portman is confident enough independents and even some Democrats will support him to outpace the top of the ticket.

But Strickland is still upbeat about his chances to flip the polls back in his favor.

“I will admit right now I’m a little behind, but I’m not a dead dog because they’re still kicking me,” 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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