Erick Trickey will be in Cleveland all week covering the Republican National Convention for Cincinnati Magazine. This is his fifth post. Read the others here.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman wants you to know he’s a nice guy. This week, while Trump supporters at the Republican National Convention have taken to screaming “Lock her up!” at the sound of Hillary Clinton’s name, Ohio’s cool-tempered Republican senator is touring Cleveland, doing good deeds.
“For me, it’s also about leaving something of value in Cleveland,” Portman told the Ohio delegation at its breakfast this morning. He talked about how he’d worked on two Habitat for Humanity houses this week, and how he raced a wounded war vet yesterday in a kayak on the Cuyahoga River—and lost. It’s how Ohio’s mild-mannered first-term senator is attempting to run for re-election his way in the year of Donald Trump. And it’s not easy.
Unlike Gov. John Kasich, whose estrangement from Trump deepened this week, Portman has endorsed the maverick GOP nominee. Like Kasich, Portman has busied himself around Cleveland this week, but unlike Kasich, he has also visited the convention floor to chat with delegates. Portman, the former U.S. trade representative, is trying to play his expected role in party unity, but without getting too close to Trump’s angry nationalism or his spats with other Republicans.
“There are a lot of people who are saying in the media, well, there’s this speech, and that speech, and somehow the Republican Party is not as unified as it ought to be,” Portman said today—a vague reference to Ted Cruz defiantly avoiding an endorsement of Trump last night.
Instead, Portman focused on the positive. “I will tell you, I thought Mike Pence’s speech last night was terrific,” he said, to applause. “He’s a common-sense conservative, he’s a great family man, he’s a guy of deep faith. He’s exactly the right complement to Donald Trump… and the Trump-Pence ticket is going to be the right ticket to win in November.”
Portman, one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent senators, is carefully calibrating the distance between himself and the GOP’s historically unpopular presidential nominee.
“I believe we are more unified than ever after this week,” Portman declared, unconvincingly. “I think we have come together more this week.
“Now, let’s be honest: there’s no other choice,” Portman went on. “Hillary Clinton? Another four years of Barack Obama’s administration? Or worse? Is that a choice?”
“No!” the delegates shouted. “Lock her up!” one guy yelled. Portman chuckled.
“Let’s also talk about what we’re for,” he pivoted. Portman blitzed through an agenda that included tax reform and cutting regulations. “Our military has to be rebuilt,” he added. “These are issues that we’re going to hear tonight from Donald Trump.”
Polls show Portman slightly ahead of his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Ted Strickland. Unlike Trump, who’s tied with Clinton in three recent Ohio polls, Portman lays claim to a massive get-out-the-vote effort in the state. He says young volunteers for his Senate campaign have already contacted 2.8 million Ohioans by phone and door knocks.
“This election is too important for us not to be all in,” Portman told the delegates, echoing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship-year slogan. He warned that his race could determine control of the U.S. Senate—and that the election could determine who controls all three branches of government. At least one U.S. Supreme Court seat hangs in the balance, thanks to Portman and other Senate Republicans’ refusal to vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia.
“We’re going to decide how many Supreme Court justices get picked by who,” Portman said. “If Democrats get in with a majority in the Senate and Hillary Clinton, they’re going to appoint justices who may be there through our lifetimes and our kids’. This is going to change who we are as a country.”
But when Portman turned to national security, he ran into some Trump trouble. “We need to restore our leadership role around the world,” he said, contrasting John F. Kennedy’s bold defenses of freedom worldwide with Obama’s reticence for foreign entanglements. Portman, who met with the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. yesterday, warned that Russian troops and tanks are again poised on Ukraine’s border. “That security umbrella in Europe, with NATO, is frayed,” Portman added.
But in Eastern Europe, the real contrast isn’t between Portman and Obama, but between Portman and Trump, who admires Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Last night, Trump told The New York Times that he might not uphold NATO’s promise of mutual defense if Russia attacked a member country—that he would review the country’s contributions to the alliance before deciding whether to act.
Asked about Trump’s comments after his speech, Portman walked a careful line. He called NATO “arguably the most important alliance we’ve ever had,” then soft-pedaled Trump’s statement. “I would say his point that we would like our NATO partners to contribute more to NATO and their own defense is absolutely accurate.”
Outside the breakfast, about a dozen reporters gathered in a scrum around Portman and threw Trump questions at him: How does he respond to Democrats’ assertion that Trump is running against the very trade agreements Portman helped negotiate as U.S. trade representative?
“I strongly agree with Donald Trump on cracking down on unfair foreign imports,” Portman said. “Where we may have a little disagreement is on exports.” Portman talked up Ohio factory exports, and then said, “I agree with Donald Trump, largely, on his trade agenda, because it’s about leveling the playing field, being tougher.”
It’s not likely to be the last time a Trump question puts Portman in an awkward spot between now and November.
Erick Trickey is a Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and has written for POLITICO, Smithsonian Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @ErickTrickey.