There was a time, not so long ago, when the nation’s Amalgamated Union of American Political Pundits (OK, there’s no such organization, but you know what we mean) had Ohio’s junior senator, Rob Portman, on its list of potential Republican presidential contenders.
But Portman, the Terrace Park Republican, took himself out of the running early on and committed to running for re-election to a second term in the U.S. Senate, where he has, in a few short years, become a significant voice for the GOP and a close ally of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Then the speculation began about which of the small army of Republicans who did enter the race would get the Portman's endorsement.
Portman remained Sphinx-like and refused to say anything, except that he would support the nominee of his party.
In reality, there were only two real possibilities – former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the present governor of Ohio, Kasich.
A little over a week ago, Portman – on the heels of Kasich endorsement by the Ohio Republican Party’s central committee – came out for his home boy, Kasich.
Portman did it while managing to take a pot shot at the leading Democratic candidate for his Senate seat, former governor Ted Strickland, saying that Kasich “inherited a mess” from Strickland and pinning the loss of 350,000 Ohio jobs on the Democrat.
“Gov. Kasich has done a great job leading Ohio’s comeback; and I believe he is needed now to do the same for our country as the next president of the United States,’’ Portman said.
Strickland’s campaign spokesman David Bergstein shot back with a statement saying Portman’s “backing may help with his lobbyist friends and the special interests he serves on Wall Street, but not here in Ohio.”
Now, was Kasich happy to have Portman’s backing? We have no doubt that he was.
But the question is, who (potentially) gains the most from this endorsement – Kasich or Portman?
Portman, we say - at least potentially.
Portman is in a tough re-election campaign, even though he is clearly going to have a great advantage in terms of campaign dollars ($12 million in the bank at the end of 2015 compared to about $2 million for Strickland).
Hillary Clinton is still the most likely Democratic nominee (Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire poll numbers notwithstanding) and could be a formidable general election candidate in Ohio, a crucial swing state that went for Barack Obama twice.
Would it not be a good thing for Portman, in the fight of his political life, to have the governor of Ohio at the top of the ticket?
“For Portman, there’s nothing lost here in endorsing,’’ said Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Xavier University. “There’s no doubt Portman could use Kasich’s help.”
It had to be a tough call for Portman – endorsing Portman over Bush.
Portman has had close ties to the Bush family going back to his work in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He abruptly left a safe U.S. House seat in 2005 when President George W. Bush asked him to become U.S. trade representative; and he later served “Bush 43” as budget director.
Deep, deep ties to the Bush family.
“But the reality of the matter is that I think people in the party are coming to terms with the idea that Jeb Bush is not going to be the nominee,’’ Mariani said.
Donald Trump is still leading the polling in New Hampshire by a substantial margin. Kasich has surged somewhat lately; he’s ether in second place now, or a close third, depending on the poll - but still far behind the front-runner, Trump.
Kasich’s competition boils down to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Bush.
The Ohio governor has made it clear that if he does not do well in New Hampshire on Feb. 9, he may as well throw in the towel and go home. New Hampshire is the basket where Kasich has put nearly all his eggs. It’s do-or-die. And Kasich, in recent days, has been very optimistic in his assessment of where he stands in the Granite State.
“Kasich has a little momentum going and he has a good state story to tell about his record in Ohio,’’ Mariani said.
But still, Mariani said, “I think (Kasich) is very much a long shot candidate.”
Kasich was banking on a strong showing Thursday night in the sixth GOP presidential candidates’ debate on Fox Business Network, a two-and-a-half hour affair that had seven candidates on the stage, instead of the usual double-digit number in previous debates.
The Ohio governor got generally good, but not spectacular, reviews from the punditry world. Like some of the other candidates, he was somewhat buried in the angry exchanges between Trump and Cruz, the two front-runners in the Iowa caucuses, which take place Feb. 1 – eight days before Kasich’s all-important New Hampshire primary.
It’s hard to see how he helped himself a great deal in New Hampshire in the debate, but he could make up for it with massive TV ad buys and his tireless campaigning, mostly at town hall meetings, in the cities and villages of the Granite State.
If Kasich comes out of New Hampshire in a position of strength; and some of the other more moderate, mainstream alternatives to Trump start falling by the wayside, he could pick up more campaign dollars and the momentum to carry him past states like South Carolina and Nevada, where social conservatives are likely to dominate, and into the primaries where a candidate like Kasich could do well.
And the road then leads to the Ohio primary on March 15, where the winner takes all of the state’s 66 delegates.
Portman’s campaign has been focusing on making contact with independent voters, mostly in suburban areas – targeting people who might vote for Clinton for president but go for the Republican in the U.S. Senate race.
But as Mariani says, “the number of those ticket-splitting voters is pretty small these days.”
Better for Portman, then, to have Kasich at the top of the ticket. John Kasich, accepting the GOP presidential nomination from the podium at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in July - that would be just dandy for Portman’s purposes.
And it’s better for Portman to run for re-election with Kasich’s Ohio “success story” to latch on to – the story of a state that went from 11 percent unemployment in January 2010 to 4.4 percent in November 2015 – a fact that Kasich crows about constantly on the campaign stump. Democrats will argue that it was part of a national comeback from a worldwide recession and that Kasich had little to do with, but, still, it sounds good in a campaign speech.
But, for Portman, it would sound even better if Kasich was delivering the message as the GOP presidential nominee.