Key Senate race in Ohio showing increasing promise for GOP

By Erica Werner and Julie Carr Smyth - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Republican Sen. Rob Portman won the support of another Ohio labor union Wednesday, fueling GOP optimism about hanging onto the swing-state seat and Senate control in November. The union endorsement also added to Democrats’ concerns about their candidate, former Gov. Ted Strickland.

The endorsement from Local 18 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which backed Strickland for governor in 2006, comes after Portman also announced support from branches of the Teamsters and the Mine Workers, which also switched their allegiance from Strickland.

Portman also is overwhelming Strickland in fundraising, reporting $13.2 million cash on-hand compared to just $3.8 million for Strickland. Now some Democrats are voicing concerns about the campaign being run by the former governor, who turns 75 on Thursday and whose public campaign appearances have been minimal. Strickland is getting hit with predictable attacks over his record as governor, which saw Ohio bleeding jobs amid a national recession, and Democrats grouse he hasn’t done enough to criticize Portman over the Republican’s support for Donald Trump.

“They haven’t made Portman and Trump the same person, which is certainly something I would do,” said Democratic strategist Gerald Austin of Cleveland, who backed Strickland’s opponent in the March Democratic primary. “He was governor for four years, he got beat, they’re going to run the governor’s campaign against him like it was still 2010. And that’s what they’re doing,” Austin added.

Austin’s comments echo concerns being voiced privately by Democrats on Capitol Hill, who’ve been watching Strickland’s campaign with concern for months, and working with the former governor’s team to try to improve matters. Nevertheless, Democrats remain optimistic about their chances in Ohio, which has voted Democratic in the past two presidential elections, though Ohio voters have also backed winning Republicans in the past.

Some Democrats concede that the 60-year-old Portman is running a very strong campaign, but argue that nothing he does can save him if Democrat Hillary Clinton soundly beats Republican Trump in Ohio. Strickland is also better known than Portman and will benefit from coordination with Clinton’s field operation.

“I’m pretty sure Ted Strickland has been hit with more special interest attack ads than anyone in the country and he’s still very much in the race and that’s a testament to his strength and popularity in Ohio,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman at pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA and a former Democratic operative in Ohio.

Ohio is among a handful of top-tier Senate races, along with Pennsylvania, Florida and New Hampshire, where Republican incumbents are facing aggressive Democratic challenges. Democrats need to pick up five seats to take back control of the Senate, or four if they also keep control of the White House since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

Senate races have become a major focus this election season with the presidential race in turmoil and Republicans unlikely to lose control of the House. The Koch brothers, major GOP donors, have disengaged from the presidential race and instead are focused on Senate races, and Ohio is at the top of the list.

Strickland’s spokesman, David Bergstein, disputed the significance of the development with the Operating Engineers union, pointing out that the local in question has a history of backing Republicans, despite having supported Strickland for governor in 2006. He also noted that Strickland has the bulk of labor union endorsements and has been backed by two other branches of the operating engineers union.

“Ted has earned the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of labor unions like the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Steelworkers and AFSCME because of his proven commitment to fighting for working families,” Bergstein said. “The contrast in this election couldn’t be more clear: Ted is on the side of Ohioans who actually work for a living, while Senator Portman is pushing the agenda of his rich and powerful friends.”

Nonetheless it’s unusual for a Republican candidate to snatch labor union endorsements from a Democrat the way Portman has done, and reinforces the view among Republicans that Portman is well-positioned to hang on in this atypical election year. Republicans increasingly are hopeful that voters will be able to separate GOP Senate candidates from the top of the ticket and that some of their vulnerable incumbents will be able to retain their seats even if Trump goes down.

“Rob Portman is the hardest working man on the campaign trail. The campaign is smart, nimble and shattering the traditional coalition models; he fits the state like a glove,” said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Recent polling in Ohio has shown a tied race or Portman slightly ahead.

By Erica Werner and Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press