Monday, September 05, 2016

Race of the Day- Ohio U.S. Senate

63 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Labor Day brings us to one of the most crucial political states in the country and a must-win for Republicans in defending their Senate majority. This race is fairly unusual because chances for Democrats looked stronger months ago than they do now, and even if Republicans are bracing for losses in other states, they are feeling fairly confident about keeping a Senate seat in the Buckeye State.

Six years ago, Republican Rob Portman was elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate. Even before that, Portman, a former Congressman and official in GOP Presidential Administrations, was seen as someone with national potential in the party and had been mentioned on Vice Presidential shortlists in 2008. After Portman's comfortable 2010 Senate election, he was mentioned quite frequently again in 2012, but Mitt Romney ultimately went with Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

A reliable conservative on all matters, including social issues, in 2013, Portman became one of the first Republican Senators to change positions and announce support for same-sex marriage, also revealing he had a gay son, and citing that as his rationale. At the same time, Portman was said to be looking at running for President in the 2016 cycle, but this one issue might have caused him some problems with the religious part of the GOP base. Ultimately, Portman did not run for President, and some thought he could face a challenge from the right in a Senate reelection primary. That never really got off the ground though and the incumbent took over 80 percent in the March primary.

Democrats had a more competitive primary process, in which three candidates competed, but the clear frontrunner was Ted Strickland. On the same day that Portman was elected to the Senate in 2010, Strickland was defeated for reelection as Governor by John Kasich. Before serving as Governor, the psychologist and minister, lost three bids for Congress, before finally getting elected in 1992. Two years later, Strickland was wiped out in the GOP wave, but rebounded in 1996 and served for the decade in the House, before winning election as Governor in a strong year for Ohio Democrats.

While Strickland had high name recognition, and like Portman, had been talked about in 2008 as a potential Vice Presidential candidate (when he strongly supported the primary candidacy of Hillary Clinton), some wondered whether the then 74 year old defeated Governor was the strongest figure for change against a modestly popular incumbent. Opposing him in the primary would be 31 year old Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who offered a generational contrast and some prominent endorsements. Strickland's name recognition and support from national figures was too much to overcome though and the former Governor won the primary by over 40 points.

Even before the primary voting, there were polls showing Strickland running very well against Portman, and at least slightly ahead in most. The thinking was that Strickland had higher name recognition in the state, from his time as Governor, and the wonkish Portman was not as visible on Ohio television sets. That along with some conservative suspicion of Portman made him look quite vulnerable and Democrats had been bullish on flipping this seat.

The Republican nomination of Donald Trump for President only bolstered their hopes, although there is a dynamic of working class voters in the state who might otherwise vote Democrat going for Trump while some traditional upscale Republican voters are now more likely to vote Democrat in opposition to Trump. Polls show Hillary Clinton ahead there, at least by a few points, but all indications are that if Governor Kasich had been victorious in his Presidential primary bid, the state would be well on its way to be colored red. Presidential politics also played a factor in the talk about Portman's Senate colleague Sherrod Brown, and his hopes to have been Hillary Clinton's running-mate. Had that ticket won, Kasich would have appointed a replacement, possibly Portman himself, if he lost in November, and the Democrats would have lost a seat.

In recent weeks, this race has inched back towards Portman. This is somewhat surprising as Trump was expected  to be a major drag. The incumbent has been among those in the GOP to issue pro-forma endorsements of Trump, but he has also been careful to not be associated too closely with the nominee. This might be easier in Ohio where many in the state GOP, are loyal to Kasich, who has avoided any Trump endorsement. On substance and temperament, Portman is quite different than Trump, making it more difficult for Strickland and Democrats to tie the two together.

Incumbency helps though, and Portman has used a sizeable campaign warchest to boost his numbers, advertising on behalf of himself, and reminding voters why Strickland was rejected as Governor after four years in office. The polls have swung to the Republican, who now leads outside the margin of error in most. It is a remarkable turnaround and if successful, Portman will be credited with running one of the smartest campaigns in the country, especially as it relates to neutralizing the Trump factor.

Both parties have moved resources in recent weeks to indicate how they feel about this race. Republicans seem to think it is in the bag and Democrats are more focused on other states. It is probably too early to declare it all but over, but if the trend continues, Portman's lead may even grow. If not for Trump, it would not even be that close at the Senate level, and if an Ohio Republican such as Kasich or Portman himself were on a GOP national ticket this fall, the Electoral Votes of Ohio, a strong bellwether state would probably be headed in a different direction. There's always 2020 I suppose.

Portman campaign link:

 Senate races predicted thus far:
7 D (5 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans)
18 R (5 Safe, 5 Likely, 5 Leans, 3 Tossup)

Overall predicted thus far: 43 D, 48 R


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