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Portman, Strickland Carry On The Battle For Senate Control In Ohio

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Obviously, the battle for the White House is at the very top of this year's election fight card.

But coming in a not-too-distant second is a battle that has been brewing since the 2014 election, when Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate after eight years of the Democrats being in power.

At the beginning of the year, Democrats could smell victory in the air – all they had to do was to flip four Republicans seats and they could retake control of the Senate.

That's still a possibility in next Tuesday's election, although it's a tough row to hoe for Democrats.

Early on, the Democrats looked at Ohio and saw the seat held by Republican Rob Portman as one of their best bets for a pick-up.

After a Democratic primary where he steam-rolled over Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland became the Democratic candidate and the polling earlier this year had him out in front of Portman by a substantial margin.

Perhaps the reason was that the same polling showed that Strickland was better known than Portman. That's often the case – people are more likely to know something about a governor than a U.S. Senator.

But if anything can cure lack of familiarity in politics, it's money.

And Portman has had more of it – much more – at his disposal than his Democratic rival.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics' opensecrets.org, Portman's campaign committee has raised about $25 million to Strickland's $10 million.

But that tells only part of the story.

Independent expenditures – funded by out-of-state, conservatives such as the Koch brothers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NRA and others – have spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads attacking Strickland, while Strickland's independent expenditure allies have been able to spend only a fraction of what has been spent for Portman.

If the polling is correct, a race which Strickland dominated earlier this year has turned around completely.

RealClearPolitics.com, a web site that tracks polling in national and state elections, did an average this week of the last four polls of Ohio voters on the Senate campaign and it showed Portman with a lead of 14.5 percent.

This is all you need to know to explain why Washington-based Democratic campaign committees began scaling back what they were spending in Ohio on Strickland's behalf.

Nonetheless, Strickland says he is still optimistic. And the battle rages on; and will, up to the last minute.

Three other candidates will be on the ballot: Joseph DeMare of the Green Party and independents Tom Connors and Scott Rupert. 

Who are the candidates?

Rob Portman

A Cincinnati native, Portman, his wife Jane and their three children live in Terrace Park. His father, the late William Portman, started a business called the Portman Equipment Company with five employees and grew it into a business that employed more than 300 people.

Portman became a lawyer, and was a partner in the Cincinnati law firm of Graydon, Head and Ritchey when U.S. Rep. Bill Gradison suddenly resigned from Ohio's Second Congressional District seat. Portman ran in a crowded special primary to replace Gradison, which he won and he went on to win the special general election easily. In a heavily-Republican district that stretched from the east side of Cincinnati to Scioto County, he ran seven times and always received more than 70 percent of the vote.

But he left that safe seat in the House in 1995, when President George W. Bush asked him to become the U.S. Trade Representative, the Cabinet-level officer responsible for implementing and enforcing U.S. trade policy. He spent a year in that job, but then Bush appointed him to another Cabinet position, as budget director.

In 2010, out of office and with Barack Obama now in the White House, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat opened up by the retirement of Sen. George Voinovich. In the fall campaign, he easily defeated Democrat Lee Fisher and became Ohio's junior senator.

Campaign web site:

On the issues:

Sen. Rob Portman
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU
Rob Portman

Wednesday was the 11th day of what Portman calls his "Countdown to Victory" tour. He traveled about 4,000 miles around the state in an old RV, visiting 35 counties and 85 stops.

"We were talking about why it is important to have somebody in Washington who is an independent voice,'' Portman told WVXU. "I've been talking about what my roadmap is for the future to get the economy moving and protect the country."

Portman's foes take issue with him calling himself an "independent voice" in the Senate, saying he takes his marching orders from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is beholden to the billionaires who have financed his campaign.

Portman disputes that.

"What I mean by independent voice is that I get up every morning and figure out what's best for Ohio,'' Portman said. He pointed to legislation he has sponsored which he says "will level the playing field on trade, which basically says to steelworkers and auto and tire workers that we're looking out for you."

Portman has supported trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) while in the House and the Bush White House, but now he says he is an opponent of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

"I do believe that we need to expand exports and that trade can create jobs here in Ohio, but it's got to be fair, balanced trade where if unfair imports are coming in, we are going to crack down on them,'' Portman said.

"Ohio is one of those states that has been hit hard by imports from countries like China or when they dump their product or they subsidize it,'' Portman said. "I don't care if it is a Democratic or a Republican perspective, I am going to stand up for Ohio."

Portman told WVXU he has been one of the leaders in Congress on the growing problem of heroin and opioid addiction.

He said he spent three years putting together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to pass the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which President Obama recently signed into law.

"I've brought together Democrats and Republicans alike because Ohio is probably one of the of top five states  in the country in terms of being impacted by this terrible epidemic,'' Portman said.

"This law is not just about spending more money on the problem, which needs to be done, but to spend it in a way that is more effective in order to actually get at the problem,'' Portman said.

It adds another $181 million a year to federal spending on opioid addiction.

"But it's not just more money,'' Portman said. "It's money that is being spent on evidence based programs that we know work."

In direct contrast to Strickland, Portman wants to see President Obama's signature program, the Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," totally scrapped and replaced with a new approach to making health care coverage available to millions of Americans.

"Obamacare isn't working for Ohio,'' Portman said. "My opponent says it's wonderful and it's the best thing since sliced bread. But it's just not working."

The premiums being paid under Obamacare are "getting out of control. It's up 25 percent nationally. And even in Ohio, there are double-digit increases. People just can't afford that."

"It's just not working; even Bill Clinton said it is crazy,'' Portman said of Obamacare. "We have to replace it with something that works much better."

Portman suggested expanding the availability of Health Savings Accounts and allowing people to take tax credits "that will allow them to choose what's best for their families.

"The providers will compete for the business of the millions of Ohioans who have seen their health care costs dramatically increase,'' Portman said. "Obamacare has to go. And it must be replaced with a system that makes sense."

Ted Strickland

Background:

The eighth of nine children, Strickland was raised in rural Scioto County by his mother and father, a steelworker. He was the first of his family to go to college, earning degrees from Asbury College, a masters of divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, and advanced degrees from the University of Kentucky, where he met his wife Frances.

Strickland worked as a psychologist counseling inmates at the maximum security prison at Lucasville, only a few miles from the rural village of Duck Run where he grew up. An ordained Methodist minister, he also served as an administrator at a Methodist Children's Home.

He ran losing campaigns for a U.S. House seat in 1976, 1978 and 1980 before finally running successfully in 1992, facing incumbent Republican Bob McEwen. He was among the many Democrats who lost their House seats in the Republican landslide of 1994, losing a close race to businessman Frank Cremeans.

But Strickland came back two years later and won, winning three more elections by large margins before running for governor in 2006. In Nov. 2006, he easily defeated Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell of Cincinnati.

But, in the middle of Strickland's term as governor, the national recession struck and Ohio, like most other states, was losing jobs and revenue at an alarming rate.

In 2010, former Republican congressman John Kasich took him on and ended up making Strickland a one-term governor by a mere two percentage points.

After leaving office, Strickland was a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and then took a job in Washington in 2014 as president of the Center for American Progress Fund. In Feb. 2015, he announced he was running for Portman's Senate seat.

Campaign web site:

On the issues:

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU
Ted Strickland

Strickland told WVXU that if he is elected – hopefully, under a Democratic majority – his first priority will be tackling issues of income inequality.

"This country needs an economy that will work for everyone and it's not working for everyone now,'' Strickland said.

"The stock market is doing well; the wealthiest among us are doing very, very well; but average citizens are feeling as if the economy is not working for them,'' the former governor said.

"For the last several decades, people have worked hard and wealth has been created but that wealth has not been shared among those who worked to create it,'' Strickland said.

The gap between the wealthiest Americans and the "working poor" is greater than ever, Strickland said.

"Things are out of balance in our economy are out of balance now and we have to address that,'' he said.

Unlike Portman, who wants to do away with Obamacare, Strickland is a forceful defender of the system, even though he says it is not perfect.

"It does need to be improved, obviously,'' Strickland said. "But we can't forget that there are about 20 million Americans who have access to health care coverage now who did not have access before Obamacare."

That number, he said, includes about 800,000 Ohioans.

He praised Kasich, the man who defeated him six years ago in his re-election bid, for "choosing to use Obamacare to expand Medicaid coverage in Ohio. I'm glad he did. I think that was a wise decision to make."

"If we were to get rid of Obamacare, what it would mean is that that the insurance companies would once again be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions," Strickland said.

"They would once again be able to charge women more for their health care than men; and the expansion of Medicaid in this country is just not possible without Obamacare,'' Strickland said.

On entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, Strickland said he would oppose any moves to privatize them or establish means-testing.

"I think if we were to engage in means-testing for Social Security, for example, it would fundamentally change the nature of Social Security,'' Strickland said. "It would transform it into a welfare program. It's an entitlement program.

"And why is it called an entitlement program?,'' Strickland said. "Because people are entitled to it as a result of the contributions they make to it."

When Strickland was running for the U.S. House and governor, he had the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA), as do most successful politicians from his rural part of the state.

Not this time. The NRA's spent over $2 million in TV ads attacking Strickland.

"I grew up in the country; I grew up on a dirt road called Duck Run,'' Strickland said. "Everyone in my family hunted. I hunted."

He says he believes in Second Amendment rights, "but I've got eyes and ears and a heart."

"We lose 33,000 Americans a year to gun violence,'' Strickland said. "So I believe we can have some common sense efforts to curb gun violence without interfering with the Second Amendment rights under the Constitution." 

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