Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager, said if campaigns are a reflection of the candidate, Portman’s campaign reflects a detail-oriented, data driven bid for the Senate that also relies heavily on personal relationships cultivated over decades.
The campaign has made much of their relationship with groups not traditionally affiliated with conservative Republicans: It has touted its union endorsements, its relationship with black pastors, and Portman even did an ad in Spanish.
“He’s comfortable in any setting in Ohio,” said Bliss, who says many of his constituents call Portman on his personal cell phone. “He’s their friend. You can’t fake that.”
Portman has also worked hard to cultivate volunteers early — recruiting nearly 5,000 people total — and deploying them all over the state both to spread the word about Portman and to find out what those voters were looking for in a senator. Last weekend alone, 2,000 volunteers made 160,000 voter contacts, according to the campaign. Each week, Portman calls five volunteers to thank him for what they’ve done. Portman, said Bliss, “doesn’t cut corners.”
His sizable money advantage also hasn’t hurt him. He has $7.7 million in the bank, and has $15 million worth of ads total, while Strickland’s precarious fundraising situation — he had $1.4 million in the bank as of Sept. 30 — has spurred him to pull out of smaller TV markets in the state. Portman’s campaign says it has contacted more than 5 million voters.
In a state with deep problems, Portman has focused on strategies for solving them.
“How many days has he been on the campaign trail when he’s not talked about sexual trafficking? Prescription drug and heroin epidemic? Real bread and butter economic issues?” asks Jeff Sadosky, a former aide who now works at a lobbying firm.
Critics say Portman is a reliable vote for Republican measures.
“He’s not an independent voice,” said Sandy Theis, executive director of the left-leaning ProgressOhio. She says Portman signed a letter warning that the Iran Treaty could be undone by the Senate, was one of the Republicans to oppose a vote on Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and voted to defund Planned Parenthood.
“He does whatever the Republican leadership wants him to do and expects him to do,” she said. “and I expect him to continue that if he’s re-elected.”
Theis said Portman has run a “magnificently deceptive and effective” campaign that has fooled some voters about his past record.
“One of the greatest advantages he had going into this is that no one knew who he was,” she said. “People didn’t really have an opinion of him, even though he is the consummate political insider. So he was able to define himself for the voters.”
In May 2016, a Quinnipiac University Poll of likely Ohio voters gave Strickland a 43-42 edge over Portman. By Oct. 18, Portman had pulled ahead, leading Strickland 54-41.
Still, said Sadosky, Portman won’t let up through Election Day. “I guarantee he does not feel comfortable yet,” he said.
Joe Hagin, a childhood friend who met Portman somewhere between fifth and sixth grade and who later worked in the White House with him, said Portman “gets his hands dirty. He has never been one to just turn things over to staff.”
Hagin recalls hammering in yard signs for then-Rep. William Gradison with a teenage Portman. More than a decade later, Portman replaced Gradison in Congress.
“You find a lot of great politicians in Washington, and you find a lot of brilliant policy people,” said Hagin. “He is one of the rare breed that is very good at both.”
Portman’s diligent, even wonkish nature served him well when he served as George W. Bush’s trade ambassador and budget director. But friends say he has an appetite for outdoor adventure that is hidden from those who only see his public persona.
As a House member, he and a Democratic colleague snuck a kayak into the House pool so they could practice rolling it; more than once he’s told the story of slamming his dislocated shoulder into a rock during a kayaking accident in Chile in order to pop it back in place. A serious bike rider, he is also an annual participant in the Pelotonia bike race in Columbus.
These days most of the outdoor activity is limited to camping in his campaign RV as he travels around the state. In the final two weeks he planned stops in 35 counties. “I am taking nothing for granted,” he said.
He is unapologetic about talking about his record – he’s proud of the fact that President Barack Obama signed 45 bills by him, a Republican, into law.
“People appreciate the fact that we are getting things done,” he said. “And to do that, we have to reach across the aisle. I am a proud, common-sense conservative, but I focus on results.”
US SENATE RACE
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