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0000017a-3b40-d913-abfe-bf44a4f90000Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU news team as the politics reporter and columnist in April 2012 , after 30 years of covering local, state and national politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. On this page, you will find his weekly column, Politically Speaking; the Monday morning political chats with News Director Maryanne Zeleznik and other news coverage by Wilkinson. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974, as well as 16 presidential nominating conventions. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots, the Lucasville prison riot in 1993, the Air Canada plane crash at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983, and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. And, given his passion for baseball, you might even find some stories about the Cincinnati Reds here from time to time.

Both Strickland And Portman Have Burdens To Bear In Ohio Senate Race

Politically Speaking

  "Odd" is a word that describes many things about the 2016 election cycle, beginning with the presidential race and working its way down to the bottom of the political food chain.

It's certainly a good word to describe recent events in Ohio's U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Republican Rob Portman is trying to win re-election over former Democratic governor Ted Strickland.

It's rather a big deal. The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is not massive; and there are enough seats in play around the country to give Democrats hope that they can regain control of the Senate, especially if Donald Trump's presidential campaign crashes and burns on November 8, taking Republican Senate candidates with it.

Some Democrats dare to believe that, if the Trump carnage is bad enough, they would win back the U.S. House as well – which would make this election the ultimate Trifecta for the Democrats.

So, little wonder that millions of eyes and millions of dollars are being trained on the Portman-Strickland campaign.

Both of them had rather odd weeks.

Strickland and the Democratic Party were busy trying to paint Portman into a corner in regards to his avowed support for Trump. They want to plant the seed in the minds of voters that, in supporting Trump, Portman is supporting someone whom millions of Americans don't believe has the temperament to be president in a dangerous world and whom they don't want anywhere near the nuclear codes. Especially given the fact that Trump himself said this week that he doesn't really trust U.S. intelligence agencies – the ones who would be giving him, as president, advice on when to use military force and when to turn to diplomacy instead.

On Thursday – a day when Ohio Gov. John Kasich was helping out Portman with his campaign RV trip through Ohio – the state Democratic Party chairman, David Pepper, was holding a conference call with reporters questioning Portman's judgment in not disavowing Trump and some of his more extreme statements on the stump.

"John Kasich has shown real courage in not endorsing Donald Trump,'' Pepper said. But Portman, Pepper said, "has this unwillingness to disassociate himself from Donald Trump."

What Pepper, Strickland and the Democrats want to know is this: Would Rob Portman trust Donald Trump to handle the nuclear codes?

Apparently, the answer is "yes."

Michawn Rich, a spokeswoman for Portman's campaign says so.

"Rob believes that Mr. Trump and the national security team he appoints will protect our security interests and do everything they can to keep America safe, and that includes the president's nuclear responsibilities,'' Rich said in a written statement.

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said "that line of attack by Strickland makes a lot of sense. It's an opening for Strickland.

"There are the questions about whether or not Trump has the temperament to be president; and, in the polls, Clinton cleans his clock on those questions,'' Skelley said.

"If Strickland can't run on his record as governor, then it may come down to him trying to make Portman and Trump best buddies,'' Skelley said.   

Portman, it would seem, is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Trump. Yes, he has said publicly that he supports the nominee of his party, even though he might not agree with everything the billionaire developer said during the primary campaign.

To be re-elected, he needs the support of Trump's voters in what could be a very close election. But he wants to do it without alienating those independents and Republicans who want nothing to do with Trump, so he has very carefully avoided appearing in public at any of Trump's campaign events in Ohio.

The last thing you are going to see on your TV screen, laptop or mobile device is an image of Donald Trump and Rob Portman in the same place at the same time. Portman would prefer not even being in the same time zone with him.

But the Strickland camp really can't do much crowing these days.

Clearly, their candidate is running behind in the polls.

And Pepper said as much in his conference call.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely Ohio voters had Portman ahead of Strickland by nine percentage points.

Pepper said he doesn't believe that; he thinks the Quinnipiac Poll is an "outlier. We think it's more like three to five percent."

And Pepper blames it on the flood of money coming into the state from the Koch brothers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others paying for ads trying to tear down Strickland – especially over his record as governor.

"Anyone short of John Glenn or Lebron James would be behind three points after $35 million was spent against him,'' Pepper said.

Rich said that in the conference call, "Chairman Pepper admitted that Ted Strickland is losing because this race is about Rob's record of accomplishment and Ted Strickland's record of failure."

If Portman has a Trump problem, Strickland created one for himself on Aug. 8, when he was speaking to an AFL-CIO group in Cleveland. He stuck his foot in his mouth with a remark about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February; and had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to extract said foot.

NHK Network was recording this; and put it on YouTube. The National Republican Senatorial Committee was more than happy to distribute the audio to one and all. 

In his speech, Strickland said "the death of Scalia saved labor from a terrible decision…I don't wish anyone ill, but it happened at a good time because once that decision had been made it would have been tough to reverse it."

You can hear applause and laughter from the union audience. Strickland was apparently referring to a 4-4 Supreme Court vote in March in a case that involved public employees unions' ability to collect fees from non-members – a case that was seen as a win for organized labor.

Strickland immediately realized what he had done and issued an apology.

"That was an insensitive remark and I regret it,'' Strickland said.

A few days later in Moraine, Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, was at a rally and called Strickland's words "appalling."

And Republicans all over Ohio were letting Strickland stew in his own juices.

"That was really dumb,'' Skelley said. "I'm sure he knew it as soon as he said it, but, once you've said it, you can't put the words back in your mouth. He's stuck with it."

Don't be surprised at all if, sometime soon, you hear those words from Strickland over and over again on attack ads, on broadcast TV and social media.

Buckle your seat belts, Ohio. The next 79 days are going to be a bumpy ride, in more ways than one.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.