Is this Ohio's most important race?

Posted at 5:00 AM, May 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-12 12:10:50-04

Brad Johnson spent a weekend walking through snowy New Hampshire neighborhoods this winter, campaigning for Gov. John Kasich ahead of the primary.

Johnson, president of University of Cincinnati College Republicans, was disappointed when Kasich dropped from the race last week, but he still plans to volunteer for the fall election with door knocks and phone calls to voters here.

Only it won’t be for presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.

“I am just morally against Trump, and I do not think he is conservative at all, so I cannot get myself to help him in any way,” Johnson said. “I do not really buy the argument that he is any better than Hillary Clinton.”

Many Ohio Republicans who dislike Trump are refusing to help him win the presidency. Instead those GOP volunteer hours will be spent helping candidates win lower-level races.

At the top of the list: Sen. Rob Portman, who is facing a very close re-election battle against former Ohio governor and Democrat Ted Strickland. The winner may swing the majority of the Senate.

“I’m going to be focusing on Sen. Portman,” Johnson said.

His club will likely work two campaign events weekly for Portman this fall, and help Republicans Dennis Deters and Andrew Pappas in their Hamilton County Commissioner races, as well as Gary Lee in the county sheriff’s race.

Only a handful of the club’s 50 members support Trump. So Johnson isn’t sure what will happen if Trump’s campaign asks them for help.

“Most of the kids in the club do not like Trump, and they’re mixed about whether to vote for him or not,” Johnson said. “Once we get to volunteer season, I don’t know what we’ll do.”


Brad Johnson campaigning in New Hampshire.


The Portman race will be the top priority for the Ohio Republican party this year, said party chairman Matt Borges, who admitted, “I don’t know how involved I’ll be with the Trump campaign.”

Republicans in Ohio and Pennsylvania are among a handful of Senators who, in 2010, won seats that are now in danger of falling to Democrats this November.

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics changed his prediction of Ohio’s Senate race from leaning Republican to “toss up” in early April.

“The entire election will be about Donald Trump… and that is not to Rob Portman’s benefit,” said Jared Kamrass, a principal at Rivertown Strategies political consulting firm.

“Local folks will be doubling down to protect Senator Portman," Kamrass said. "He’s got a tough race."

After Trump became the presumptive nominee last week and floated Portman’s name as a possible vice president pick, it  made things worse for Portman.

Portman’s campaign quickly tried to distance itself from Trump. But Strickland’s spokesperson put out a statement that Trump and Portman “share the same toxic agenda.”

“Every time Trump says something outrageous and every time Trump is in Ohio, Rob Portman is going to be stuck answering for Trump,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “If Portman renounces Trump, he loses some votes. If Portman embraces Trump, he loses some votes. If Portman tries to hide, he loses some votes.”

Niraj Antani, a Republican state representative, isn’t happy about Trump at the top of ticket. So he’ll be working for Portman instead.

“We just basically nominated a former Democrat,” said Antani, an Ohio delegate who plans to vote for Kasich at the Republican National Convention no matter what.

“I am supportive of the Republican nominee,” Antani said. “However, I will not be endorsing at this time nor will I spend any of my political time with the campaign. My focus is on re-electing Senator Portman.”

And Portman may need the help. A recent poll showed Portman as the third least-known senator, with 32 percent of home state voters not knowing him or having no opinion.


Cincinnati Councilwoman Amy Murray


Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray has already hosted events with Portman’s wife, Jane, as well as volunteering at call centers, and will continue to help with the fall campaign.

She predicts Cincinnati, Portman’s hometown, will be favorable territory for him. But the campaign still needs to remind Republicans to vote.

“Some people don’t like Hillary Clinton, some people don’t like Donald Trump,” Murray said. “But Rob Portman is good, and most people like him. So they need to know, no matter what you do at the presidential level, you need to get out and vote for the down ticket.”

But voters may be too consumed with the presidential race to pay attention to anything else, Niven said.

“The problem for Republicans is that the presidential race is literally going to drown out the campaigns running down the ticket,” said Niven, who is a former speechwriter for Strickland. “The worst thing that could have happened to Portman is Trump as the nominee.”