Portman, Strickland Spend The Week Playing Whack-A-Mole
Donald Trump and (presumably) Hillary Clinton will be the featured bout in this November's election in the key swing state of Ohio, the bellwether of presidential elections for as long as anyone can remember.
But the undercard fight in Ohio is a pretty good one too.
In one corner: Republican incumbent Rob Portman, master fundraiser and policy wonk extraordinaire. In the other: Democrat Ted Strickland, one-term governor and the third most famous person to come out of tiny Duck Run in Scioto County, Ohio (the first being Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys; and the second being baseball executive Branch Rickey, who gave the great Jackie Robinson the opportunity to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball).
The Strickland-Portman contest obviously has national implications. The most recent polling shows it a dead heat; and it is, without question, one of the key races in the Republicans' battle to retain control of the U.S. Senate, no matter what happens in the presidential race.
And, so far, it has been first-class entertainment as well.
The Democratic challenger was gob-smacked this week by the decision of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a union which still has some clout in Ohio's Appalachian foothills, to endorse Portman.
Gob-smacked, Strickland was, because UMWA's National Council of Coal Miners PAC had been a long-time supporter of Strickland, throughout his years in the U.S. House and in both of his gubernatorial campaigns in 2006 and 2010.
Strickland is a southeast Ohio guy; he grew up there; he represented the area in Congress. He is a son of Ohio's coal country, which Portman most assuredly is not.
But apparently Strickland went astray with the coal miners after he lost his bid for re-election to Congress in 2010 and went to work in Washington, D.C. as head of the liberal Center for American Progress's non-profit, CAP Action. CAP Action is a group that fights climate change and is four-square in favor of "clean energy" programs.
Coal power most certainly does not fit the liberal Democrats' definition of "clean energy."
That was enough for the UMWA to bolt on Strickland and throw its support behind Portman.
In a written statement, Portman blasted Strickland for having "a record of turning his back on Coal Country."
About all that Strickland's campaign could do was come back with some of Portman's congressional votes, including voting against a bill that included funding for mine safety and supporting getting rid of legislation that gave more access to black lung benefits for miners.
Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan and a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he thinks Portman and the Republicans might be overplaying their hand by rubbing Strickland's nose in the UMWA snub.
"Ohio has mining in it, but it is not a mining state,'' said Kondik, who will publish a book this summer on the history of Ohio's role in presidential elections. "This is not West Virginia. It is not Kentucky. Coal is not the defining feature of Ohio politics."
The UMWA had more clout in Ohio in previous generations than it does today.
But for Portman, Kondik said,"getting backing from a unexpected source is not a bad thing."
The fact that Strickland has edged away from the pro-coal and pro-gun positions that helped elect him to six terms in the U.S. House from southeast Ohio and eastern Ohio districts is not surprising.
"He seems to be re-packaging himself as a conventional Democrat,'' Kondik said.
And that is because, in this new era of Ohio politics, the path to victory for Democrats lies in winning the three biggest counties – Franklin, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton.
Being a pro-gun, pro-coal Democrat does not do you much good as a candidate in those urban areas of the state.
Portman could not spend too much time crowing about the endorsement of the coal miners' union because he was dealing with a kerfuffle over whether or not he would set foot in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the site of next month's Republican National Convention.
The convention where You-Know-Who is going to be formally nominated as the Republican candidate for President of the United States.
Ohio Democrats have been gleefully torturing Portman for months now about whether or now he will embrace Trump's candidacy and what impact Trump might have on Portman's chances of getting re-elected.
Portman has said he will support the nominee of his party. Will he go out of his way to campaign with him in Ohio this fall? Don't hold your breath.
At any rate, The New York Times did a story last week on Republican elected officials coming up with excuses not to be in Cleveland while Donald Trump is being crowned.
Portman told the Times that his time would better be spent holding a mini-convention of his own in Cleveland, something he plans to do.
"I've spoken at every convention since 1996,'' Portman was quoted by the Times as saying. "Nobody listens; nobody covers it."
Then, a day later, Portman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he will attend the convention. But there is no word on whether or not he will have a speaking role.
The Democrats hopped all over the ambiguity they perceived about Portman's intentions.
"It's all just another example of Portman acting like the ultimate, self-interested Washington insider that he is – tying himself into a political pretzel as he runs away from his party's toxic nominee, while simultaneously embracing him,'' said Daniel van Hoogstraten, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party.
Friday, Michawn Rich, a spokeswoman for the Portman campaign, tried to set the record straight – yes, he will attend the convention; and, yes, he will hold his own events outside the convention hall.
"Rob is excited to show off Cleveland and participate in the convention – both inside and outside of the convention hall,'' Rich said in an e-mail. "During convention week, our campaign plans to hold more open press events than Ted Strickland has held in the past six months."
During the convention, Rich said, Portman and campaign volunteers will help build a home for Habitat for Humanity. He will kayak on the Cuyahoga River in a fundraiser for Team River Runner, a non-profit that aids healing active duty military with recreational activities. And he will throw a big party for all the Ohio Republican Party's delegation at a location to be determined.
Whether or not he ever lays eyes on his party's presidential nominee that week is yet to be seen.
The other side will, of course, be watching closely.