Will Supreme Court Nomination Hurt Portman's Re-election Bid?
It was not as if Ohio's junior U.S. senator, Rob Portman of Terrace Park, didn't have enough headaches to deal with in his bid for a second six-year term when the conundrum of President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland came along.
The Democratic Party leadership in Washington already saw Portman as vulnerable; and an important key to the Democrats' ambitions to re-take control of the U.S. Senate in November. It is not, by any means, a pie-in-the-sky ambition.
The polling in Ohio's U.S. Senate race, for what it's worth, shows Portman in a virtual dead heat with Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. A Feb. 24 Quinnipiac Poll, for example, showed Strickland with 44 percent support and Portman with 42 percent – well within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
And while the same poll showed Portman with a better "net favorability" rating – the difference between a candidate's favorable rating with voters and his or her unfavorable rating – is better than Strickland: plus 24 percent compared to plus 11 percent for Strickland.
But, in the Quinnipiac Poll, 39 percent of those registered Ohio voters polled said they did not know enough about Portman to form an opinion on him one way or another. Strickland, who served one term as governor, is unknown to 26 percent of those polled.
When you are a U.S. Senator running for re-election, it is probably not a good thing that nearly four of every 10 voters in your state don't know who you are.
Portman will, no doubt, have a tremendous money advantage over Strickland; and is running a campaign against "Retread Ted,'' claiming Strickland represents tired, worn-out ideas and, as governor, was responsible for Ohio losing 350,000 jobs on his watch. Democrats point out that Strickland's years in the governor's office coincided with a deep international recession that the Ohio governor had absolutely no control over.
There are some other potentially thorny issues out there for Portman, such as his support for international trade agreements, which Strickland and his allies in organized labor argue have cost (and will cost) Ohio thousands of jobs.
But the nomination of Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy left by the sudden death of one of the court's conservative stalwarts, Justice Antonin Scalia, could also come back to haunt Portman.
Immediately after Scalia's death, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said the Republican-controlled Senate would not hold hearings on any nominee sent to it by President Obama and would take no vote.
The presidential nomination and the Senate confirmation proceedings, McConnell said, should come after this year's election, when Americans will go to the poll to choose a new president.
McConnell said he would not even meet with an Obama nominee.
Portman fell in line with McConnell; and, after the White House nomination landed in the Senate, said he had no intention of voting to confirm Garland or anyone else in this election year.
It put him at odds with the majority of voters in Ohio, according to the Feb. 24 Quinnipiac Poll, which was taken before President Obama made his nomination. In that poll, 56 percent of the Ohio voters polled said the Senate should consider the president's nominee, while 40 percent said the Senate should delay action until a new president is in office.
Then, on Thursday, Quinnipiac released a poll of voters nationwide which said that 62 percent say the Senate should consider Garland's nomination while 33 percent said the Senate should wait until there is a new president.
And, then, a drumbeat of editorials in newspapers around the state began appearing calling on Portman to buck McConnell and support hearings for Garland. Strickland supporters started demonstrating outside Portman's offices in Columbus and Cleveland, while Strickland's campaign launched a web site DoYourJobRob.com.
Well, on March 18, Portman had his say in an op-ed column on the Enquirer's website, cincinnati.com.
First of all, he said for the first time that he would be willing to meet with Garland – only one of a handful of GOP senators who has said that.
"The president has every right to nominate a Supreme Court justice; and I'm certainly willing to meet with his nominee,'' Portman wrote. "But the founders also gave the Senate the exclusive right to decide whether to move forward with that nominee."
Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper told WVXU that voters see the opposition of Portman and other Republican senators to Garland "for what it is, just plain obstructionism. They really aren't fooling anybody with this rhetoric."
Geoffrey Skelley, the media relations coordinator and a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he is not sure that, in the long run, the Supreme Court issue is going to mean a lot to the success or failure of GOP senators like Portman.
By saying he would meet with Garland but insist that the Senate not consider his nomination, Portman is "trying to have his cake and eat it too. It's understandable."
One Republican senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has bucked McConnell completely. Kirk has said the GOP senators should "man up and cast a vote" on the Garland nomination. Kirk, though, is in an even tougher re-election campaign than Portman – he's facing U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat.
Kirk has some company - two other GOP senators, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Susan Collins of Maine - have said the Senate should conduct hearings on the Garland nomination.
Skelley said it's conceivable that Portman could eventually drift to the Kirk side of the argument, but he doesn't think it is a make-or-break issue for the Ohio Republican.
"People say in the polls that it is an important issue,'' Skelley said. "But when you drill down into the polls, the Supreme Court issue falls by the wayside compared to issues like the economy and national security."
Portman, too, has to worry about who is at the top of the GOP ticket. If it is Donald Trump, there is a widespread belief – not necessarily backed by evidence - that Hillary Clinton could win Ohio and that would be bad for all the down-ticket Republicans, including Portman.
And Portman, who is backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the nomination, said in a conference call with reporters earlier this month that he will support the party's presidential nominee "unless something crazy happens." But he would not say whether he means he would support Trump.
If we had to guess, we'd say Trump is as much, if not more, of a potential thorn in Portman's side than a Supreme Court nominee.