Quietly, in the shadow of a presidential race that at times resembles a reality TV show, the battle for an Ohio U.S. Senate seat is shaping up to be just as impactful.
As the ultimate swing state, Ohio, and Hamilton County in particular, is accustomed to being the place where presidents are chosen. But in 2016, Ohio voters may have an even bigger role.
“We may not only get to choose the president; we may also get to choose who runs the Senate,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven, once a speechwriter for former Ohio governor Ted Strickland.
Recent polls show Republican Sen. Rob Portman in a very tight race with Strickland, his Democratic opponent, and the winner may swing the majority of the Senate.
“I happen to believe if Sen. Cruz or Donald Trump are the nominee, not only will they not win, it puts at risk (GOP control of) the United States Senate,” John Kasich said in a speech in New York last week.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are among a handful of Senate seats won by Republicans in 2010 that are now considered in danger of falling to Democrats.
“These are the headline races," said Jared Kamrass, a political consultant at Rivertown Strategies. "They reek of opportunity for Democrats under normal circumstances and you throw in Donald Trump … and the Democrats look at this as the path at retaking the Senate."
The top of the presidential ticket is so important in this Senate race, it actually dwarfs the power of money, experts said.
“There’s no race where your $50 dollar contribution will mean less,” Niven said.
While this Senate campaign money may be useful now, once the general presidential election heats up, it won’t carry much punch, experts said.
“There will be so much outside money coming into Ohio … even if they had $25 million each, they would be outspent by outside money and super PACs,” Niven said.
That super PAC money, likely to arrive this summer, will try to define this Senate race before it is drowned out by the presidential election, Kamrass said.
Their ads will likely paint Portman as an out-of-touch Wall Street crony who sent jobs overseas and Strickland as a losing governor who cost Ohio jobs and ballooned its deficit, Kamrass said.
Other key issues for the race are trade with China and the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, which has been stalled by Republicans.
In the end, neither Portman or Strickland may have much control over who wins this race.
“They could both head to Tahiti right now and come back on the day after the election,” Niven said. “Nothing they do will be as powerful as the gravitational forces of Trump or Clinton whoever the nominee is.”
What Happens if Trump is the Nominee?
Voters will either show up in mass, or stay home entirely for the Nov. 8 election based largely on if they are happy with who is on the ballot for president.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is if the GOP nominee is Trump.
The worst-case scenario for local Republicans would be an explosive turnout of Democratic voters, especially among casual voters who often decide elections. They may overtake moderate Republicans and independents who, unhappy with their GOP choice, decide to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.
“The top of the ticket means so much in a swing state like Ohio,” Kamrass said. “If Hillary Clinton wins Ohio by 4 or 5 points, then Rob Portman will have a difficult time.”
Or if Trump is the nominee, he could spurn higher voter turnout. He may steal some white low-income voters from northeastern Ohio who typically don’t vote or usually vote for Democrats, Niven said.
The problem with an unconventional candidate such as Trump or Bernie Sanders is that it makes it hard for a party to present a central message.
“Parties want to have a unified message and consistency down the ticket. They want voters to vote straight ticket,” said Sean Comer, Xavier University’s director of government relations.
But when a party has a presidential candidate who is “somewhat different,” it makes it hard to keep voters interested in lower races, Comer said.
“If you see a large turnout because people are coming to vote against Donald Trump, it is highly unlikely they will go to the next race on the ballot and vote Republican,” Kamrass said. “I think that is terrifying for Rob Portman.”