Portman plays hardball with potential opponents

Jan 11, 2015

Ohio’s junior senator, Republican Rob Portman, fired a shot across the bow last week – a warning shot for anyone thinking about running against him in 2016.

His campaign committee put out a long statement saying that, as of the end of 2014, Portman had $5.8 million in the bank for his re-election campaign – a pretty incredible amount for 23 months before the election.

And the unspoken message was that he can get plenty more where that came from.

It was a message that was aimed at the Ohio Democratic politicians who are said to be thinking about taking him on – a group that includes Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld, former governor Ted Strickland, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, former congresswoman Betty Sutton and more.

But it was aimed, too, at the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, many of whom are extremely riled up at Portman over his announcement that he supports same sex marriage – a position he said he came to after he learned that his son Will was gay.

Many of them, including Cincinnati’s Phil Burress, the head of Citizens for Community Values, have vowed to run a candidate against him in the 2016 primary, although nobody seems to know who that candidate might be.

But, just in case the leaders of the social conservative wing of the party get the idea that an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator could be beaten in a primary, Portman’s campaign organization sent out a long list of endorsements from GOP leaders around the state. It included:

  • All the statewide elected officials – Gov. John Kasich, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor Dave Yost, Secretary of State Jon Husted, and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel;
  • All of the Republicans members of Ohio’s U.S. House delegation;
  • 96 percent of the Republican members of the Ohio Senate;
  • 86 percent of the GOP members of the Ohio House, including the new speaker, Cliff Rosenberger;
  • 88 percent of the county Republican Party chairs;
  • 87 percent of the members of the Ohio Republican Party State Central Committee.
  • and dozens of Ohio’s former members of Congress, county elected officials and party leaders around the state.

OK, we get the point.

Thursday, Portman held a conference call with Ohio reporters. One reporter asked the senator if the release about his money and endorsements was meant to send a message to potential GOP primary challengers.

Portman didn’t answer the question directly.

“It was a nice show of support and I’m very appreciative of those elected officials and Republican leaders around the state of Ohio who are willing to stand by me,’’ Portman said.

But the message was sent with the press release – “Don’t mess with me.”

2016 is going to be a year when Ohio Democrats hope they can bounce back, after a disastrous election last year where they lost every statewide race, and by large margins.

They could be helped by the fact that it is a presidential election year; and, in Ohio, that tends to draw out a lot of Democratic voters who don’t always show up in an off-year election – if there is a Democratic presidential candidate who can excite them, the way Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Would Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, have that kind of get-out-the-vote power? It remains to be seen.

Obviously, winning the presidency will be at the top of the GOP agenda in 2016 too.

But the Republicans will have their hands full in Senate races – after winning control of the Senate this year, they will have no less than 24 seats to defend in 2016, including Portman’s. The Democrats will have 10.

Portman was the GOP’s chief fundraiser in its successful effort to win control of the Senate in 2014; and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is likely to repay him by pulling out all the stops for him in his re-election bid. Millions will flow into the state on the GOP side, from the party committees and what has been referred to as Portman’s “billion dollar Rolodex.”

Whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, he or she had probably better get started quickly – as within weeks, not months.

“There is no question that Rob Portman is going to have a whole lot of money,’’ said David Pepper, the former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner who took over as chair of the Ohio Democratic Party this year.

“Any Democrat who is running will have to raise money early,’’ Pepper said. “You don’t have to match (Portman) dollar for dollar. But you have to have enough to get your message out.”

Some of the potential Democratic candidates are well-known and well-established in the party – Strickland, Ryan, Sutton. Pepper said he doesn’t expect the party to get involved in backing a particular candidate – at least not at this point.

Sittenfeld is a new commodity – 30 years old; and a two-term city council member who ran first in the council field race in 2013.

Sittenfeld is getting attention in national publications as a potential candidate; and you can expect him to make an announcement about whether he is in or out very soon.

He is very good at raising money – he spent about $340,000 in the 2013 council election. But raising money for a Cincinnati City Council election and a U.S. Senate race are two different matters. This is big time. This is the big leagues.

Pepper said if Sittenfeld wants to run, he had better get out of the box first, before the better known candidates jump in.

On Thursday, all Sittenfeld would say is “we’ll be making an announcement in the days ahead.”

The party, Pepper said, could use a new generation of young candidates who could appeal to young voters.  

“When young voters showed up in 2012, the Democrats won Ohio for President Obama,’’ Pepper said. “They didn’t show up in 2014; and we lost in a big way.”

Sittenfeld represents “a new generation. He has the potential to bring a new generation of voters to the equation.”

It is far, far too early to tell who the Democratic who ends up taking on Portman in the 2016 general election will be. But it is a race that is going to have to begin soon – if only because of the fact that the incumbent Republican has nearly $6 million in the bank. And that’s quite a head start.

Portman has issued his warning to potential rivals. We’ll see if anyone is scared away.