In ascending to become the likely Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump felled a number of prominent members of the Republican elite.
Now Trump, the ultimate renegade who plays by his own rules, could cripple the re-election hopes of an establishment Republican from Ohio: U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
Nearly 65 percent of voters currently hold a negative view of Trump, the New York real estate magnate, leading some to predict a ripple effect on down-ticket races if disgusted Republicans stay home in November.
And if Trump loses Ohio, that could mean trouble for Portman, who is locked in a tight re-election battle with former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
Not since 1940 has a Republican U.S. Senate candidate won in Ohio while the GOP presidential nominee has lost.
“Rob Portman is truly stuck with Trump,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati and former speech writer for Strickland.
“Donald Trump will be something like a horror movie monster to Rob Portman. Portman can go about his business and pretend he’s not afraid, but he can’t ignore it, because eventually Trumpzilla will knock over most everything around him.”
David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, predicted a defeat of historical dimensions for Trump in Ohio.
“I don’t believe Trump is going to carry Ohio. I don’t know if he can get to the 39 percent” Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater “got in 1964,” Leland said.
“Remember what happened in 1964,” said Leland, referring to Democratic Sen. Stephen Young’s defeat of Republican Robert Taft. “These elections have a tendency to filter down to the Senate races.”
Portman’s campaign aides profess not to be worried.
“It has no impact on our race,” Portman campaign manager Corry Bliss said of Trump’s candidacy. “We are running our own race, like we have for a year and a half. People are excited about Rob Portman, his record and his campaign.”
In an appearance Thursday in Youngstown, Portman said Trump’s candidacy could be “positive in the end” for his campaign.
“What I saw here in the Valley and around the state was that a lot of people came out to vote for Donald Trump who had never voted for a Republican before,” Portman said.
The Portman advantage
Portman has one big advantage in the race, namely money. The campaign has $14 million in the bank, which means it has far more money to spend on TV advertising than Strickland. And the Portman team contends that voters have a low opinion of Strickland’s term as governor from 2007 through early 2011 when the state — like the nation — was hammered by a recession.
“Trump is absolutely going to have an effect on this election,” said Jai Chabria, a former aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who exited the presidential race on Wednesday, leaving Trump as the lone Republican standing. “But Ted Strickland is such a flawed candidate that I think the Portman team will effectively remind voters of his failed governorship.”
While acknowledging Trump’s steep disapproval ratings — particularly among women and suburban voters — Portman’s team notes that the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also is widely distrusted. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 56 percent of registered voters disapprove of Clinton.
“The only Democrat Donald Trump could beat is Hillary Clinton and the only Republican she could beat is Donald Trump,” said Bob Clegg, a Republican consultant in Columbus. We have never in our nation’s history had to choose between two people who voters don’t like and think are liars.”
Yet even fervent backers of Portman are privately worried that Trump will create problems for Portman in November. They say Portman easily would have been re-elected if Republicans had nominated Kasich or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Instead, GOP primary voters rejected the more establishment candidates in favor of Trump, whose bombastic rhetoric has resonated with blue collar voters but annoyed many women and Hispanics — voting blocs that could tip the scales to Strickland if they turn out in high numbers.
And turnout across the board could be record-setting, according to UC’s Niven, who says he just ran turnout numbers for presidential elections since 1980.
“Works out that the more we dislike the candidates, the higher the turnout,” Niven said. “Which means, we could be looking at record turnout in 2016.”
Because they believe Trump will motivate Democratic voters to turn out against him, Democrats will try to tie Portman to the Republican nominee, particularly after the Republican convention. And unlike a number of incumbent Republican senators who have said they plan to skip the convention because of Trump, Portman could hardly do that since it is being held in Cleveland.
“There will be no rock (in Cleveland) that Portman can hide under to avoid his party’s toxic nominee,” Strickland campaign spokesman David Bergstein quipped.
Democrats already have tried to link Portman with Trump. When CNN reported Thursday that a Trump aide identified Portman as a potential vice-presidential nominee, Liz Margolis, a Strickland spokeswoman pounced, saying, “It’s no surprise that Donald Trump wants Senator Portman to be his vice president because on many issues Trump and Portman share the same toxic agenda,” such as opposing a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Portman’s aides quickly tried to knock down the story.
“It’s not happening, period,” Bliss said.
Disagreements on trade
Although Portman has pledged to support the Republican nominee, he and Trump have sharply divergent views on international trade. Trump has railed against what he calls unfair trade deals, such as the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, as causing the loss of millions of American manufacturing jobs.
By contrast, as a member of the U.S. House from 1993 through 2005, Portman voted for the NAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. When Portman served as U.S. trade representative from 2005 to 2006 under President George W. Bush, he helped guide the Central America Free Trade Agreement through Congress.
Portman has attempted to modify his views on trade. While he voted last year to give President Barack Obama the authority he needed to complete a 12-nation Pacific trade pact, he said he would oppose the final agreement as it currently is drafted.
Other Republicans say Trump can be an asset because he is likely to attract voters from traditional Democratic areas such as the Mahoning Valley and southeastern Ohio, much as he did in March when he lost the Ohio presidential primary to Kasich.
“The Trump Effect has already been seen on a very positive side,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “We have more than one million new registered Republicans in the state, based on the March 15 primary, so we now have an 800,000 registered voter advantage over the Democrats, which is turned on its head from what it has been in past cycles.”
But Daniel Birdsong, a professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said unless Trump’s favorability numbers improve, Portman has no incentive to campaign with him.
“The Portman campaign may be in a wait and see, holding pattern because no one knows where a ticket on the Trump Train will take you,” he said.
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