There’s no candidate in America in 2010 more closely associated with the presidency of George W. Bush than Rob Portman, the Republican running for the Senate in Ohio. As a House member, he was liaison between the Bush White House and congressional Republicans. Then he served as Bush’s special trade representative and White House budget director for a total of less than three years.
Democrats have made the most of this, attacking Portman for sending jobs overseas, increasing the deficit, and … well, for just about anything the voting public might hold against the Bush administration. And what’s the result of zeroing in on the Portman-Bush connection in this economically distressed state that President Obama won in 2008? Nothing. Harping on the Bush theme has had zero impact on the campaign.
Portman, 54, isn’t benefiting from having worked for Bush, but he certainly isn’t suffering. His lead over Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, his Democratic opponent, in the most recent polls in September of likely voters was 55-35 percent (Quinnipiac), 52-41 percent (CNN/Time), and 49-36 percent (Fox News/Rasmussen).
Fisher, 59, is reputed to be a skillful fundraiser. He overwhelmed Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner in the Democratic primary with his campaign spending advantage. But against Portman, he’s underfunded. At the end of June, Portman led Fisher in campaign cash-on-hand by $8.88 million to $1.27 million. And he’s raised more than $2 million since then.
Another telling sign is that independent expenditure groups—American Crossroads, the Chamber of Commerce—stepped in with TV ads when Portman was off the air in July and August. He hardly needed their help. In striking contrast, outside groups aligned with Democrats have treated Fisher like a pariah and stayed out of the Ohio campaign.
What’s responsible for Portman’s lopsided lead? In January 2009, just before he and Fisher entered the race, the same pollster (Quinnipiac) that has Portman up by 20 percentage points now had him trailing Fisher by 15 points, 42-27 percent. For sure, Fisher benefited from better name ID back then as a top state official. But the Portman surge is the product of much more than matching Fisher’s visibility—in fact, four things appear to have mattered.
One, the entire state of Ohio has flipped. Obama won Ohio, 52-47 percent, in 2008, and Democrats picked up three House seats. Now Republicans are poised to take back the three seats and win two or three more in the midterm elections on November 2.
In the governor’s race, Democrats have relentlessly attacked Republican John Kasich for having worked on Wall Street for Lehman Brothers when he retired after nine terms in the House. The effect has been pretty much the same as linking Portman to Bush—roughly zero. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Kasich leads incumbent Democratic governor Ted Strickland by more than 10 percentage points.
The normally mild-mannered Strickland has reacted poorly to his dire situation. He uncorked an anti-Republican tirade on Labor Day that was instantly dubbed his “rant.”
The Republican party has been overtaken by the zealots, by the extremists, by the radicals, by the reckless, and they don’t seem to like Ohio very much, and quite frankly, they act as if they don’t like America very much because they want to change our Constitution. They want to change Medicare, they want to change labor rights. They want to change this country in fundamental ways, and we say to them, “Hell, no!” We won’t give the state over to them! We’re gonna hold on, we’re gonna hold on. So I ask you, are you ready to fight the radicals and the extremists? Are you ready to fight the tea party radicals? I like this one. Are you ready to fight John Kasich? What we are fighting against is Wall Street greed that brought this economy to the brink of total disaster.
And you know what they like to say. They like to say that Ohio has lost 400,000 jobs. What they don’t say is that America lost eight and one half million jobs. And why did those jobs leave our people and our country? It was not because of Ohio. … It was not because of Ted Strickland. It was because of Wall Street greed. Now they want to take the culture of Wall Street, they want to take the greed of Wall Street, they want to take the leadership of Wall Street and take over this country and we say, “Hell, no!” We won’t give up our state and our nation to Wall Street.
Two, the Ohio economy is in worse shape than Strickland. The state has indeed lost 400,000 jobs since the recession began in 2007, all on Strickland’s watch. The unemployment rate jumped from 5.7 percent three years ago to 10.1 percent today. “Ohio is not a business-friendly state,” Portman says. Chief Executive magazine ranks Ohio 44th in business environment. The Tax Foundation says only three states have a heavier tax burden for business.
Fisher has the unfortunate distinction of having been the director of development in his first two years as lieutenant governor. He and Strickland promised job growth. But “Fisher has more of a problem than Strickland,” says Republican consultant P.J. Wenzel. “He’s the job czar. There’s no way he can run away from it.”
Three, Obama’s fall in popularity nationwide is replicated in Ohio, with all the negative fallout that entails. Obama’s presidential performance rating in the state in a Quinnipiac poll in mid-September was 38 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove. The health care bill is especially disliked. “Ohio is ahead of the country in terms of health care sentiment,” Portman insists. Sixty-five percent of likely voters in Ohio disapprove of Obamacare, 30 percent approve, according to the Quinnipiac survey.
Four, Portman is a likeable and credible candidate, if not particularly exciting. He’s focused almost entirely on jobs, circulating a glossy pamphlet with dozens of proposals, including a cut in the federal business income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and a one-year moratorium on the Social Security payroll tax. In Youngstown, he toured a high-tech plant and heard from the owner that paying for overtime makes more sense than hiring—still another sign that an explosion of job growth is unlikely any time soon.
For all his problems, Fisher isn’t entirely out of gas. Both organized labor and the Ohio Democratic party are loaded with money to spend on his behalf, though they may be scared away by his sagging poll numbers. Saving Strickland may be a better investment.
Richard Nixon believed that winning Ohio was critical to winning nationally, and this year is no exception. Ohio is crucial to Republican goals of capturing the House, Senate, and more governorships and state legislatures. They can’t win the Senate if Portman loses the seat being vacated by Republican George Voinovich.
Ohio, as luck would have it, is close to being a microcosm of the country. It’s an exaggeration to claim that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. But Ohio is urban, suburban, and rural and even has a slice of Appalachia.
And maybe there’s a lesson in the failure of the Bush connection to harm Portman’s prospects in this all-American state. Jeb Bush, call your political advisers. Your presidential prospects in 2012 may be brighter than almost everyone thinks.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.