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Portman Quietly Positions Himself, but for What?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Many in GOP circles are wondering what’s next for Portman, who currently holds a top finance position at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But Senate Budget Committee members such as Portman will play a crucial role in returning fire on the first Senate Democratic budget in four years, set to be presented Wednesday. Portman is particularly valuable to Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions, who met with the Ohio Republican and a handful of other GOP committee members March 7 to discuss the party’s message heading into budget week.

“He’s a big help,” the Alabama Republican said. “He understands the process, he understands the American economy, he understands the details of the budget requirements. He also has a really good vision for economic growth for America.”

Portman, however, seems uncomfortable talking about his current political efforts. It was no secret that Republican leaders wanted Portman, who helped deliver Ohio for Romney in the GOP primary, to take the reins of the NRSC. The top spot at the campaign arm of the Senate GOP once was a key to moving up the leadership ladder, but with outside spending ballooning and Republican primaries becoming more bruising, the job comes with fewer perks these days. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran sought the position, and GOP leaders installed two new deputies for him — Portman for finance and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for grass-roots/tea party outreach.

The move could help boost Portman’s brand if he is successful in matching the more than $40 million the NRSC raised in 2010 from big-ticket donors. But as second fiddle to Moran, he will be insulated from blame if the group repeats its 2012 failure to take back the Senate.

“Portman is very good at positioning himself — when things go well, the buck stops with him, and when things go poorly, the buck stops with someone else,” one top Republican operative said of the NRSC set up.

“He has a level of gravitas and seriousness to him that few have in the conference, and that’s going to make it easier for him to raise money on day one than Sen. Moran,” the operative continued, noting that Moran is not as well-known as Portman, who has national name recognition. “There’s always tension in these things, figuring out with whom does the buck stop. You always wonder in a three-headed beast.”

Portman has already traveled three times to New York City and Florida to meet with donors, an NRSC source said.

But he is careful to defer to Moran, while also loosely outlining his own personal goals.

“He’s the chairman, I’m not,” Portman said. “We work seamlessly together. We meet every week. He’s given me a lot of input into the political side in the sense that I need to be able to explain to donors that we’re doing things differently, and I’ve been able to do that legitimately.”

Portman is reluctant to speak more broadly about what his role will be as the party marches toward 2016. He demurred when asked his thoughts on other ambitious Republicans such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both of whom have been aggressively inserting themselves into major issues, including immigration and national security.

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