WASHINGTON ― Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) won re-election Tuesday, trouncing former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in a marquee race that fizzled in the final months of the campaign amid several missteps from the Democratic candidate.
In a statement issued by his campaign, Strickland said he called Portman to concede and to “wish him well in representing the people of Ohio in the Senate.”
Armed with a substantial fundraising advantage, Portman unleashed a barrage of negative ads that painted Strickland as a Washington insider who badly mismanaged the state’s finances. After serving in the House, Strickland worked for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. The great irony, of course, is that Portman himself spent six years in the Senate and 12 years in the House, and served as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush.
In an early sign of trouble, Democrats in August began canceling advertisements set to run on television stations across Ohio on behalf of Strickland.
The incumbent senator put the Democratic challenger on his heels over a number of gaffes. In August, the 75-year-old Strickland apologized for saying the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death came “at a good time.” The court’s conservative majority was widely expected to deal a major blow to labor unions in a forthcoming case, but a 4-4 court decision after Scalia’s death staved off defeat.
In October, Strickland expressed regret after saying for-profit charter schools have “raped” Ohio taxpayers.
Portman ably maintained a balancing act with respect to GOP nominee Donald Trump. Although he endorsed the controversial real estate mogul early on, Portman strategically kept his distance from Trump, not appearing with him on the trail or mentioning him in his stump speeches. He even opted against attending the GOP convention in Cleveland, an usual move for the senator of a state hosting the party’s delegates in a presidential election year.
Trump evidently didn’t take offense, unlike with the slights he felt had been dealt to him by other members of the party, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He praised Portman, telling Fox News that the two men had a “great relationship.”
Strickland, however, struggled to tie Portman to Trump’s litany of horrible statements about women, minorities and disabled persons. In the third and final debate between Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in October, Portman turned the tables on Strickland, attacking him for refusing to distance himself from Clinton amid the swirling email controversy.
The Buckeye State had also proven to be a stronger than expected bastion of Trump support, as his economic message appealed to many blue-collar workers there. Recognizing this early on, Portman, who is on record as supporting free trade, came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries.
Portman’s victory is emblematic of the deeper contradiction surrounding the 2016 campaign ― an election that was, at least according to conventional wisdom, largely about disaffected voters fed up with the status quo in Washington. Vox’s Dylan Matthews succinctly summed up the race in October:
This is a kind of confusing situation. Portman — a former lobbyist who served as both George W. Bush’s budget director and his trade representative — theoretically represents everything voters in general, and Republicans in particular, are rejecting in this strange election year. The political establishment. Lobbyists. The Bush administration’s betrayals of fiscal conservatism. Free trade deals. But he’s running far ahead of Trump in Ohio.