Will Rob Portman run for the GOP presidential nomination?

Sep 7, 2014

The buzz from Washington about Ohio’s junior senator, Rob Portman, running for the Republican presidential nomination has flared up again.

And the Terrace Park Republican has done nothing to put out the fire.

He is reportedly considering setting up a presidential exploratory committee sometime after the November election, using as seed money his Senate campaign fund, which will probably be about $6 million by the end of the year.

And, on August 27, he traveled to the early primary state, New Hampshire, one of the destinations of choice for those thinking about running for president. He was a featured guest at “Politics and Eggs,,’’ a regular stop for prospective presidential candidates; and he campaigned for GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown in his role as the chief fundraiser for the Republican effort to take over control of the U.S. Senate this fall.

Portman is not saying much about the 2016 presidential election, although in an interview with WVXU this week, he did not rule it out.

“I haven’t decided on that,’’ Portman told WVXU when asked about reports that he is considering setting up a presidential exploratory committee.

Instead, he said, he is focused on helping his party win control of the Senate in November. The GOP already controls the House; and is certain to keep control in this election.

“If that happens, we will be a lot better off,’’ Portman told WVXU. “We can change the dynamic in Washington; we can begin to pass legislation.”

Right now, Portman said, “there is partisan gridlock and I think that would change if the Republicans had the ability to move legislation and the president would be more likely to come to the table.”

Then, he added a caveat.

“After that election, then I’ll take a look at the bigger picture but right now, I’m focused on 2014,” Portman said.

Some political analysts believe the Portman camp may be fanning the flames of a potential presidential run in order to get out in front of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who appears to be headed for an easy re-election bid this fall and may have presidential ambitions of his own.

Right now, there seems to be a dearth of so-called “establishment” candidates – the kind of mainstream candidates the Republican Party tends to end up with at the top of their presidential tickets – candidates like George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney.

That, said Kyle Kondik, communications director for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is where a Portman or Kasich could fit in.

“There’s nobody like a Jeb Bush showing interest in running right now,’’ said Kondik, a veteran of Ohio politics. “That’s why guys like Portman and Kasich can dream about this.”

Portman has long and deep ties to the Bush family. He worked in the first President Bush’s White House and served as trade representative and budget director for the second President Bush. And he has close ties with the big Republican donors – many of them here in Cincinnati – who helped fuel the Bush campaigns with cash.

If Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, were to decide to get into the race (and there is no indication of that now), Portman would “be a good soldier. He’s not going to run in that case,” Kondik said.

Barry Bennett, an Ohioan who is a political consultant in Washington, has been a close adviser to Portman since Portman first won a special election for the Second Congressional District seat in 1993. He talks to Portman frequently.

Bennett believes there is a “good path” to the nomination for Portman should he choose to run.

“If you are a generous Republican campaign donor, Rob Portman has probably been in your living room,’’ Bennett told WVXU. “He’s the only guy out there who has walked through the Bush world, McCain world and Romney world.

“Most campaigns die because of lack of money,’’ Bennett said. “I don’t think that would be a problem for Rob.”

Portman, Bennett said, “has a billion dollar Rolodex.”

One of the raps against Portman is that he lacks charisma, a man who speaks in measured tones and is not the most exciting person in politics.

Bennett said he believes that could actually work in Portman’s favor as a presidential candidate.

“We’ve had a little too much Hollywood excitement in recent years,’’ Bennett said. “I think people are ready for someone who wakes up every morning thinking about solving problems.

“If you want somebody to call Barack Obama a socialist, Rob’s not your guy,’’ Bennett said. “But if you want somebody to try to solve the mountains of problems this country has, he is a good choice.”

Another potential problem is that 2016 is also the year that Portman’s Senate seat is up for election. Portman has said publicly he won’t run for both at the same time, even though Ohio election law would allow that.

Christian conservatives in the party have a problem with Portman in that last year he came out in favor of same-sex marriage in an interview with Ohio reporters based in Washington. He said that his son Will is gay; and that Will and anyone else should have the right to marry the person they love.

This infuriated many social conservatives, including Phil Burress, the head of Citizens for Community Values (CCV), which played a major role in mounting the 2004 campaign for an Ohio constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriages. That issue passed; and is now being challenged in federal court.

“The idea  that he is going to run for president is absurd,’’ Burress said. “He’ll be lucky if he can keep his (Senate) seat.”

No one, Burress said, “is going to be the Republican presidential nominee and be wrong on marriage.”

The “values voters” CCV represents vote in droves in GOP primaries and can have a huge impact in a general election as well, Burress said.

Bennett said he thinks that the same-sex marriage issue is not going to disqualify Portman as a potential GOP presidential candidate.

“Same-sex marriage is already legal in New Hampshire,’’ said Bennett, referring to the first presidential primary state.

“There are going to be enough candidates in these primaries who are against same-sex marriage that they will split up the social conservatives vote,’’ Bennett said.

Whatever the pros and cons of a Portman presidential candidacy might be, you can rest assured that he will think his decision through thoughtfully and deeply. He is anything but the impulsive type.

In the meantime, we will take him at his word that he is “focused like a laser” on electing a Republican majority to the Senate this fall.

But we'll check back after November 4.