Now that his lone primary competitor has dropped out of the race and both contenders for the Democratic nomination are trailing him in the polls, former congressman and Bush cabinet member Rob Portman seems a formidable contender to retain the seat of retiring senator George Voinovich for the GOP.

Portman’s strength begins with his résumé. Growing up on Cincinnati’s east side, he developed a political philosophy grounded in entrepreneurship. Since 1926, his family has owned the Golden Lamb inn in Lebanon, opened in 1803 and the oldest continuously operating business in the state. As a boy, he watched his father start his own heavy equipment sales company with five employees.

“We sat around the kitchen table and heard talk about regulations, and taxes, and government getting in the way of small business,” he told me. After 50 years, the family just sold the 300-employee firm, though Portman’s 87-year-old father still shows up to work.

After attending Dartmouth and Michigan Law School, Portman went home to practice business law. He campaigned for George H.W. Bush in 1988 and served in his White House as associate counsel and legislative liaison. When a vacancy occurred in his congressional district in 1993, Portman jumped into the race and won a special election.

He rode the ’94 GOP wave back for a full term and won five more, typically with 70 percent of the vote. Portman was popular in Washington, too. His proudest moments in his 12 years in the House, he said, were “when we passed the balanced budget agreement and the welfare reform bill.” Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayer’s Union recalls Portman’s leadership on the IRS restructuring of 1998. “He set a professional work environment that rose above partisanship and ultimately gave taxpayers more rights.”

In 2005, George W. Bush named Portman U.S. trade representative, then later budget director. In his year at the Office of Management and Budget, Portman fought to contain spending and earned the sobriquet “Dr. No.” He also pushed for a revised line-item veto bill that would stand constitutional muster, and after consulting with taxpayer groups he established an online listing of earmarks. “He was extremely interested in engaging us and others,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, confirmed that Portman’s efforts “moved earmarks out of the shadows.”

But in 2007, he moved back home to Terrace Park and resumed practicing law. He declared his Senate candidacy in January 2009, 48 hours after Voinovich announced his retirement.

Supporters rallied quickly. The National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed Portman, and the state GOP central committee gave him its first unanimous endorsement in years. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Republican chairman Rob Frost declared that Portman will “stand up against national health care, stand up against cap and trade, and card check legislation.”

“He’s the perfect candidate,” fellow Ohio Republican and former senator Mike DeWine told me. “There’ll be no learning curve for Rob. He has a healthy skepticism of how government doesn’t work, and how it should work.”

Given this solid backing for Portman, it’s not surprising that Cleveland car dealer Tom Ganley dropped out of the Senate primary to run for a House seat instead. With Ganley out of the race, Portman’s campaign account—flush with $6 million—will not be drained by a primary battle but will only grow for the general election, when he will face one of two statewide officeholders seeking the Democratic nomination.

They are Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Money, political energy, establishment backing, and a lead in the latest polls make Fisher the likely winner of the May 4 primary. He’s brought in $3.3 million and has endorsements from labor and state Democratic leaders, including his boss, Governor Ted Strickland.

Brunner proudly claims to be the grassroots candidate, but she’s raised under $600,000 and has only some $100,000 on hand. Observers, moreover, question her tenacity on the stump. Fisher stands at events, backslapping and engaging crowds, while Brunner sits at a table awaiting voters.

Even so, some Democrats fear a bloodletting. Both candidates appeared at a Cincinnati Democratic forum before a somber audience the day after Republican Scott Brown’s special election upset victory in true blue Massachusetts. The moderator led the crowd in chanting, “It’s not a debate.”

Whichever Democrat wins the nomination is bound to emphasize Portman’s potential albatross—his connection with an unpopular president who left office amid economic crisis. Fisher tried this at the Democratic nondebate. “We need to rein in the reckless policies of the Bush-Portman administration,” he said, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd. Fisher accused George W. Bush of digging the biggest economic ditch of our lifetime and added, “Guess who was holding the shovel  … It was Rob Portman.”

This tactic may gain Fisher points before an audience of downcast Democrats, but Portman’s veteran campaign manager, Bob Paduchik, thinks it will backfire. Voters are looking for results from those who hold office now.

Independents especially may respond to Portman’s fiscal record and patient, rational, bipartisan persona. As the Springfield News-Sun put it recently, “Though thoroughly conservative, [Portman’s] not generally a right-wing warrior.” By the same token, noted Rob Frost, “We can’t bank on a full GOP victory in the midterms, so we need candidates who bring an ability to work across the aisle.” In recent polls, independents favor Portman over Fisher or Brunner by 12 points.

Among likely voters generally, Portman has maintained a modest lead over either Democrat since November. Pollster Scott Rasmussen attributed this partly to the national scene. “The agenda being pursued in Washington is helping Republicans all across the country,” he noted—even as he warned that a lead in the polls this early in the campaign, when many voters are still undecided, is no guarantee.

Rob Portman’s war chest, fiscal record, and personal reputation may be the next-best thing.

David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.

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