CINCINNATI -- Fans who attend a Cleveland rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday may spot an unlikely political group wearing royal blue T-shirts.
They are Rob Portman’s volunteers who now regularly show up at Clinton events throughout Ohio. They hope to convince anyone who plans to vote for a Democratic president to also consider voting for a Republican U.S. senator.
It is an unconventional strategy in a campaign season that has been like no other in history.
Portman, the Terrace Park incumbent, is seeking crossover voters to help in his tight race against former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. The winner could swing the majority in the U.S. Senate.
“The point of any campaign is to get the support of as many voters as possible, whether they are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. We're taking nothing for granted,” said Portman campaign spokeswoman Michawn Rich.
-- Rob Portman (@robportman) July 31, 2016
Portman volunteers showed up at Clinton rallies in Youngstown and Columbus two weeks ago, passing out flyers highlighting his endorsements from three labor unions. Days later he announced a six-figure ad campaign targeting union members and conservative Democrats.
Then last Saturday Portman launched a 50-stop RV tour, with upcoming visits at a coal mine and labor lodges, all places that are traditional strongholds for Democrats.
“There’ll be some ticket splitting that actually goes both ways,” acknowledged David Pepper, Ohio Democratic Party chair.
All candidates are reaching across party lines this campaign season. Donald Trump is appealing to blue-collar white men and union members, who traditionally lean Democrat, but like his tough trade stance. Meanwhile, Portman is reaching out to women and moderates -- the same group Clinton is trying to woo.
Women are particularly important to the Portman campaign, because experts say they are more open-minded and likely to vote for candidates from different parties. Portman’s success rides on his ability to attract ticket splitters.
Many of Portman’s television ads prominently feature women, and focus on issues important to them: Ohio jobs, human trafficking and the heroin epidemic.
“Will there be ticket splitters? Yes,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
She added that Portman only needs “teaspoons,” rather than “ladles” of ticket splitters to win because he is running the best Senate campaign in the nation.
Portman is also going after the traditional Democratic union vote, by attacking Strickland as a job killer.
“They have polar opposite records on trade policy,” Strickland spokesman David Bergstein said. “Sen. Portman is the best senator China ever had, whereas Ted Strickland has consistently opposed unfair trade deals.”
But the messages sound remarkably similar, said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven, a former speechwriter for Strickland.
“Both candidates have a message, in fact, they have the same message -- 'I'll stand up to China and protect jobs,'” Niven said.
The Trump effect
Perhaps the biggest unknown in this Senate race is the ultimate impact that Trump will have.
Some experts believe Portman’s fate is entirely tied to Trump’s success or failure. Others believe Trump will bring in new disaffected voters and former Democrat union members to vote Republican, which could help Portman.
“This is still a Senate race -- like most any competitive Senate race in the country -- that stands in the shadow of the presidential race and will be decided on the outcome of the presidential race,” Niven said. “And that is a real threat to Senator Portman, because no serious political figure, not even John Kasich, believes Trump can win Ohio.”
Yet recent polls place Portman ahead.
While Portman is surging in polls, so is Clinton. That same NBC news poll showed Clinton ahead of Trump by 5 percentage points in Ohio, 43 to 38 percent.
That is proof to Matt Borges, Ohio Republican Party chairman, that Portman will benefit from ticket splitters in November.
-- Rob Portman (@robportman) July 30, 2016
“It speaks to the sophistication of Ohio voters -- people will split their ticket,” Borges said. “Depending on what you think of the possibility of, heaven forbid, a Clinton presidency, having a check and balance in Congress avoids what we had in the first two years of the Obama administration. One party domination makes things very challenging.”
With Strickland just airing his first television ad last week, and an $8 million ad buy beginning after Labor Day, Bergenstein believes voters will begin to hear a louder message from his camp.
History shows the biggest impact on down-ballot races comes from the presidential candidate, said Bryan Marshall, assistant chairman of Miami University’s political science department.
“By and large Senate races live and die by structural factors that impact the presidential race,” Marshall said. “If the national political winds change in favor of Donald Trump, that will put wind in the sails of Portman again. For right now, that’s not the case.”
Yet, Democrats can’t afford to be too overconfident, Duffy said.
“There are some Democratic challengers out there who believe Trump has damaged other Republican candidates so badly, that they don’t need to be as aggressive,” Duffy said. “On the flip side you have Portman who has known from the day he was sworn into office … that he was going to have a race and he has planned accordingly. And it has showed.”