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Rob Portman, Ted Strickland poised to be part of 'biggest, ugliest' Senate race, experts say

Rob Portman, Ted Strickland poised to be part of 'biggest, ugliest' Senate race, experts say
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-06 06:00:31-04

One candidate stands accused of having “baby-butt soft hands” while the other one was “booted” from his last government job, ads assert.

And those might be the nicer attacks launched against Ohio voters’ two choices for U.S. Senate.

It's still five months out from Election Day and Ohio voters are bombarded with radio spots, TV ads, web banners, mean tweets and even Snapchat filters poking fun at Republican Sen. Rob Portman and his opponent, Democrat Ted Strickland.

Each campaign blames the other for waging a mean-spirited battle. But outsiders watching the race say both Portman and Strickland are engaging in negative ad warfare, and they don’t expect a ceasefire anytime soon.

“You could be looking at the biggest, ugliest race that’s ever been,” said David Niven, a former Strickland speech writer and now a University of Cincinnati political science professor.

Yes, it’s a year in which the presidential contest between presumptive nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to be distasteful, to put it lightly. That, no doubt, will have influence on the discourse in smaller political match-ups.

But the race for Ohio’s Senate seat has already turned ugly for a few reasons, politicos say.

‘They’re Both Meh’

Both candidates will have a tough time selling voters on their time in public office, said Joe Valenzano, a communication professor at the University of Dayton.

Strickland, for example, lost his re-election bid for the governor’s seat in 2010 and one survey suggested Portman is one of the least well-known Senators in the country

“They’re both relatively meh,” Valenzano said. “They need to do something to paint the other’s image. This is a rare case where both sides benefit by being aggressive on the other side’s record.”

Both candidates are political insiders, too, with the unfortunate task of running in a year when voters are embracing outsiders with business, not government, experience. Since campaigning on their political experience is unlikely to woo many voters, Niven said the two candidates are forced to go negative in the race.

“These two candidates are stalwarts of their party at a time when the biggest energy in American politics is with outsiders. The normal, positive record … it doesn’t sell in 2016,” Niven said. "The most relevant thing they can say is something bad about the other one.”

They’ve deployed new, attention-grabbing methods in the last few months to say those bad things.

Portman frequently uses Snapchat filters at popular events to attack Strickland and he launched the website RetreadTed.com, which warns voters not to “take Ohio backward” with the former governor. 

Rob Portman’s campaign launched this Snapchat image for users who were attending the Cleveland Indians games against the Cincinnati Reds. The Snapchat image criticizes Strickland’s jobs record as Ohio governor.Image from RobPortman.com

The Ohio Democratic Party fired back with BeltwayRob.com, which describes Portman as a political insider and criticizes his stances on free trade.

Portman’s campaign accuses Strickland of resorting to negative attacks because of his failed re-election bid for governor.

"It is sad Ted Strickland's campaign is a never ending string of personal insults and attacks - but considering Ted Strickland simply will not talk about his failed record, it's not surprising,” campaign spokeswoman Michawn Rich said in a statement.

The Ohio Democratic Party launched BeltwayRob.com to attack Portman’s history as a “political insider.” Image from BeltwayRob.com

Both camps, however, point out ways they’ve stayed positive on the campaign trail.

Last week Portman released three new television ads that don’t make a single mention of Strickland. They all focus on heroin addiction in Ohio; one features Portman discussing what he’s done to ease the heroin crisis while another spotlights a recovering Ohio heroin addict. 

And Strickland’s team says they’re simply highlighting important differences between their candidate and Portman.

Strickland talks of Portman’s “baby-soft hands” to insinuate the Senator is unable to relate to blue-collar workers and isn’t equipped to overhaul their benefits, such as Social Security. Portman has expressed interest in raising the age retirees can access Social Security.  

“Our campaign is focused on sharing Ted’s message of fighting for working people -- that’s where he comes from, that’s who he cares about and that’s who he’ll stand up for in the U.S. Senate,” David Bergstein, Strickland’s communication director, said in an a statement.  “We’re also highlighting the differences between Ted and Portman on important policy issues…”

Just Playing Politics?

And when the candidates themselves won’t hurl insults, there are plenty of other people lining up to do it.

Strickland’s team estimates pro-Portman groups – including the Senator's own campaign – have spent $18.5 million in advertising already and an additional $21 million in future ad time has already been reserved. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced ad buys supporting Portman, for example, last month.

Meanwhile, Team Portman predicts more than $23.5 million has or will be spent in advertising to help Strickland and hurt Portman. A bulk of those funds, they estimate, will come from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign but organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club have pitched in, by their count.

And, of course, both campaigns refute what the other says they’re spending.

Portman’s campaign has a much bigger arsenal: He had nearly $13.5 million on hand and his super PAC, Fighting For Ohio, had $2.75 million at the end of March, according to finance reports.

Strickland, meanwhile, had about $2.7 million in the bank.

Many predict this will be the country’s most expensive congressional race.

Both parties believe they have solid stab at winning the seat so they’ll make the contest a top priority – with their wallets. Winning the seat could determine who – Republicans or Democrats – controls the Senate next year.

“It’s important to so many people so it’s hotly contested,” said Chip Gerhardt, a Republican and Cincinnati-based political consultant. “In some people’s mind that’s nasty. In other people’s mind that’s politics.”

But all of the money, the hundreds of ads you’ll see on your computer screens or televisions before Election Day and the campaigning could make little difference in this race.

Ohio is a notorious swing state – the biggest influence on how voters select their next Senator will be the people at the top of the ticket, Niven said.

“They could make a pact to go off to the Bahamas and come back in November,” Niven said of Portman and Strickland.

“The biggest irony of this race is that these two candidates are going to run so hard and so long, it’s almost not going to have an effect because so much is going to depend on the presidential race.”