Sen. Rob Portman is working aggressively to help Republicans take back Ohio from President Barack Obama in 2012, and in the process developing connections with top GOP contenders who could put him on the short list for the vice-presidential nomination.
Portman will remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary, choosing instead to help all the eventual candidates make inroads with Ohio voters and Republican donors in preparation for competing in a state that could determine the winner of the general election. Mentioned four years ago as a potential vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Portman brushed aside speculation that he might be considered again but declined to directly rule it out.
“I just spent 22 months running a campaign to get to represent Ohio in the Senate and I’m really excited about that, and that’s my total focus,” Portman told Roll Call. “I’m just focused on jobs, the economy and the fiscal problems as they relate to Ohio. And that’s a full-time job — that’s a 24/7 job right now.”
Fresh off of an 18-point Senate victory that saw him win 82 of 88 counties and 15 of 18 Congressional districts, including that of two-time presidential candidate and liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), Portman boasts a statewide grass-roots network that he has continued to cultivate since the midterm elections.
Portman is based in Cincinnati, the hub of Ohio’s nationally sought-after GOP fundraising community. He has simultaneously established relationships with business-minded Republicans and campaign donors, state GOP officials and tea party activists — threading a needle of support in a key White House battleground that has been difficult for high-profile Republicans in other regions of the country.
A handful of potential Republican presidential candidates headlined fundraisers for Portman during his 2010 Senate campaign, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who has since decided against a White House bid.
Portman returned the favor by personally introducing them to his campaign donors and activist supporters — and later by delivering introductory speeches when the contenders spoke to Ohio GOP groups. Buckeye State Republican organizations are using Portman as a conduit to invite potential presidential candidates to appear before them. Portman said he helped arrange for candidates to speak at a “few” upcoming Lincoln Day dinners in Ohio, although he declined to name the candidates involved.
“I think all roads to the White House lead through Ohio and maybe a couple other states,” Portman said. “What I’m trying to do is being sure that they’re understanding the importance of Ohio and that I’m introducing candidates to Republican activists, grass-roots activists and others who can be helpful in the campaign. It’s been exciting for Ohio activists to have that kind of access. It’s not like New Hampshire where you get to meet them three or four times personally.”
The winner of the past 10 presidential elections won Ohio, with the state proving particularly crucial to victory in the past three contests. Portman has varying relationships with some of the Republicans weighing 2012 bids.
The Senator worked closely with Pawlenty on McCain’s 2008 campaign. The two get along well and talk on occasion. Portman described Romney as a friend — although the relationship appears less developed than what he and Pawlenty enjoy — and he served with Gingrich in the House during the 1990s. Daniels preceded Portman as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration, and the Ohio Republican said the Indiana governor offered him helpful advice when he was promoted to the job from U.S. trade representative.
Republican operatives for a few of the likely GOP presidential candidates said Portman could be a helpful supporter to have in any general election campaign, with one dubbing the Senator “a go-to kind of guy if you want to get around Ohio.”
“Gov. Pawlenty campaigned hard for Rob Portman last year and returned to Ohio last month to join the Senator at a great Republican gathering in the Cincinnati area,” Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said. He called Portman a “strong leader” but wouldn’t offer any hints about whether Pawlenty would put Portman on his dream short list. “We still don’t know who all is going to run for president, so obviously it’s way too premature to also start speculating about vice president,” Conant said.
But one Republican operative stated the obvious: “Portman would be on any short list.”
Portman has been a Senator for only 10 weeks but is not viewed as a typical freshman. He arrived in the chamber with an extensive résumé and reputation for explaining complex economic issues in understandable terms, and he has been given wide latitude by Senate Republicans leaders to drive the debate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), during a Monday news conference with Portman and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), told reporters about the Ohio Republican: “We are fortunate to have a genuine trade expert in our Conference.”
Portman pointedly did not rule out running for a Republican Conference leadership slot in the next Congress, when slots will be open. But the Senator, who while serving in the House in the early 2000s was the designated liaison between House Republicans and the Bush administration, said he would do so only if he “thought it would help Ohio. I was in leadership in the House and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
Although the soft-spoken Portman is sometimes described as overly cautious, he is credited with understanding the role politics plays in shaping policy.
To that end, Portman last cycle transferred $335,000 in Senate campaign funds to fellow Ohio Republicans, including a $250,000 donation to the state GOP. Additionally, he raised $1.1 million for the Ohio Republican Party, $650,000 for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $100,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Another GOP operative who worked on a 2008 campaign described the “formulaic” process for designating someone as a vice-presidential prospect. The media and campaigns follow the formula that the contender must hold a statewide office in a swing state, satisfy the party base, diversify the ticket and have a reputation for policy expertise.
“Portman’s appeal is that he checks more than one box,” this operative continued. “He is from an enormously important state, he is a solid conservative, and he is well-respected by both parties as someone who takes governing seriously.”