The idea of Donald Trump as his party’s presidential nominee is clearly getting under the skin of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
He’s probably not tossing and turning through the night, but he is clearly worried about it. And what he is worried about is the impact a Trump candidacy would have on his ability to keep his Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in a year when so many GOP senators are in tough races.
This is clearly why McConnell, according to multiple media reports, has passed the message along to his most vulnerable members that, if they think it is necessary to win this fall, they should feel free to disavow Trump and even run anti-Trump TV ads, creating distance between themselves and the most outrageous of Trump’s statements during the primary season.
And the GOP senators McConnell is sending his message to include a familiar face – Rob Portman, Ohio’s junior senator, who appears to be headed for a tough campaign to win a second term.
“Rob Portman could well be one of the people Mitch McConnell is talking about,’’ said Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan who is managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an influential weekly newsletter published by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“The presidential outcome this fall in Ohio could have a lot to do with whether or not Rob Portman is re-elected,’’ Kondik told WVXU.
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics, and Kondik wrote in the Crystal Ball published Thursday that in Democratic and swing states – and Ohio is certainly a swing state – distancing themselves from Trump might be a necessity for GOP senate candidates.
But, Sabato and Kondik wrote, that tactic might not be enough to save them in every case.
“Also, intense Trump backers (a redundant phrase) might withhold their votes from RINOs (Republicans in name only) that are turning their backs on Trump,’’ Sabato and Kondik wrote.
So far, Portman has not done much to put distance between himself and Trump.
On a phone conference call with Ohio reporters last week, Portman said he does “have a lot of disagreements with things that Donald Trump has said, but we’ll see what happens in the primary process. I do intend to support the Republican nominee, unless something crazy happens.”
Portman’s path to re-election could be rocky, even though he will have an enormous financial advantage over his likely Democratic opponent, former governor Ted Strickland, who is expected to easily win the March 15 primary.
On Feb. 24, the Quinnipiac University Poll – which periodically takes a look at where things stand in key swing states – had Strickland with a statistically insignificant lead over Portman – 44 percent to 42 percent. In a poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent, that amounts to a dead heat.
“If the contest remains this close, the outcome of the presidential race in Ohio could make the difference,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
But that same poll wasn’t a lot of help in figuring who would have the advantage in Ohio this fall – Trump or Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The Trump-Clinton match-up exactly mirrored the Senate match-up: 44 percent for Trump, 42 percent for Clinton. Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, were in a flat-footed tie at 44 percent each.
But we have always hesitated to pay a whole lot of attention to presidential general election polls taken in the heat of a contested primary season.
Kondik said he, too, takes those numbers with a grain of salt.
“It’s hard to say,’’ Kondik said. “Does the prospect of Trump as president energize the Democratic base? Can Hillary Clinton replicate Barack Obama’s success in turning out African-American and young voters? Too early to tell.”
The bottom line, Kondik said, is that “horse race polls now are not really indicative of what might happen in November.”
Kondik said he could see a scenario where Strickland might benefit from picking up Trump voters – particularly in the areas of southeast Ohio that have suffered from struggling economies and chronic unemployment for decades.
“A lot of those folks are probably more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton,’’ Kondik said. “And they know Strickland too. He represented them in Congress.”
If Trump wins Ohio and Florida – the home states of rivals John Kasich and Marco Rubio - on March 15, Kondik said, “it’s game over. Trump is the nominee.”
There is still an outside chance that a Kasich win in Ohio – or some other scenario where the anti-Trump vote comes together – could cause Trump to fall short of 1,237 delegates he needs to be nominated. That could mean a brokered convention, Kondik said, and perhaps someone else – Mitt Romney? – could end up being the compromise nominee.
But that’s really not likely, Kondik said; and it is hard to argue with him on that.
Trump would appear to be unstoppable.
And then, Rob Portman will have a decision to make – can he tell Ohioans that they should vote for Trump for president?
His own political career may hinge on the answer.