Sen. Rob Portman has been everywhere this week: kayaking with Wounded Warriors, building a Habitat for Humanity house, mingling with delegates on the floor of the Republican National Convention.
By all accounts Portman is running a well-organized campaign, buoyed by record-setting fund-raising and an aggressive ground game.
But in the end, some elections are decided by factors entirely outside of the campaign’s control, and Portman is aware of this may be one of those years. “It’s a more unpredictable year than past years,” Portman admits.
That unpredictability is almost entirely because of Donald Trump, who is about as stylistically different from Portman as a politician can be. Portman is low on bombast, high on policy minutiae — and in a tricky situation when it comes to the New York billionaire.
He can’t shun Trump, lest he alienate the legions of Trump supporters. But he can’t embrace him too tightly because he will need to attract swing voters if Trump performs poorly in Ohio in November.
So Portman has said he agrees with Trump on economic issues. He made a point of going to the convention, even as Ohio Gov. John Kasich has steadily refused to. He doesn’t mention Trump’s name at events, but he doesn’t lambast him, either.
“I think a lot of Republicans are using the kind of, ‘I’ll support the nominee’ construction and not even saying Trump’s name,” said Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President” and a political scientist with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I feel like Portman’s done a little bit of that.”
The shaky relationship Trump has with Ohio Republicans was on full display this week, with Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort saying Kasich was “embarrassing”his state by not endorsing Trump. Ohio Republicans were also miffed that they weren’t consulted by the Trump campaign in how it memorialized former Sen. George Voinovich and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett at the convention. Both men died within the last year.
Portman is controlling what he can control. His campaign has divvied up Ohio into 25 subsets, and they’re targeting all of them, running essentially 25 small and targeted campaigns rather than one large one, with voters sliced into subsets based on issues, age, region and other factors.
“Everyone has data,” said Portman campaign manager Corry Bliss. “But we have data and the army (of volunteers) at our use.”
Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper said he can’t verify Portman’s ground game claims, but he says Portman’s opponent in the election, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, is running a large integrated grassroots campaign that is operating in concert with the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Pepper said that coordination, which includes a robust get-out-the-vote effort, stands in marked contrast to what he called a lack of organization by the Trump forces in Ohio.
“In Ohio you win on your ground game,” Pepper said, adding: “No matter what Rob Portman does, I don’t think anything can make up for the lack of a presidential ground game.”
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