The Republican National Convention will have its share of no-shows among the GOP party elite, among them former presidents, former presidential nominees and several representatives and senators in tough re-election battles looking to put some daylight between themselves and the presidential standard-bearer, Donald Trump.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warily eyeing his thin majority and the number of tight election races on the GOP side, has advised senators up for re-election, for instance, to limit their time at the convention or avoid it altogether.
One member of the Republican royalty, though, can hardly skip the convention in Cleveland, even if he may deeply want to.
The problem for Sen. Rob Portman is he’s running for re-election in Ohio. After fighting hard to land the convention for his home state, Portman would be hard-pressed to skip the festivities.
He faces a stiff challenge from former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in a marquee race in a swing state that will help determine the Senate majority in the coming Congress.
Portman has swung between professing his enthusiasm about the convention and promoting his place in the GOP hierarchy to dismissing the significance of a major political event last held in Cleveland 80 years ago.
In the middle of a Senate workweek in June, he insisted he was “really excited” about the convention. “It’s going to be great for the city, which is one reason, as you know, I encouraged the RNC to choose Cleveland.”
But he also has at times downplayed the event he worked so hard to land, and for which he would, in normal, non-Trump times, be expected to assume a high-profile position.
In April, before Trump became the presumptive nominee but was racking up primary wins, Portman told USA Today he would spend “like, very little,” time in the convention proceedings.
“I’ve spoken at every convention since 1996,” he told The New York Times in June. “Nobody listens. Nobody covers it.”
Democrats had some fun with that.
The day after the Times ran with Portman’s statement, Daniel van Hoogstraten, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, pinged Kirsten Kukowski, the GOP convention’s communications director, and cc’d everyone on the press list with the subject line “Request for Comment.”
“On Wednesday, Senator Rob Portman slammed the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, saying he may not ‘set foot’ there because ‘nobody listens, nobody covers it.’ Wondering if you have comment.”
For good measure, and a sign that Democrats would tie Portman to Trump, van Hoogstraten added a lengthy postscript that detailed “why Trump at the top of the ticket is disastrous for Portman, and why he may not want to attend the convention,” including “Trump’s well-known insults toward women, veterans and immigrants.”
And you can expect Strickland’s campaign to pile on.
“There is no rock that Rob Portman can hide under in Cleveland to escape Donald Trump, one of the most toxic and divisive presidential candidates in history,” says David Bergstein, a spokesman for Strickland. “Ohio Democrats and Ted Strickland will make sure people are reminded of that.”
Ohio is always important for Republicans.
No GOP president has ever won the White House without winning the Buckeye State.
The state has produced eight presidents: William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.
It has produced prominent members of Congress such as Taft’s son, Sen. Robert A. Taft, whose memorial graces a carillon on the U.S. Capitol grounds, and former House Speaker John A. Boehner.
Portman, 60, was a natural heir to Ohio’s political pantheon.
True, strategists in both parties always counted on Portman having a tight path to a second Senate term, particularly during a presidential election cycle, when turnout favors Democrats.
But the genial, mild-mannered lawmaker has succeeded at every stage of his career.
The Dartmouth-educated Cincinnati native got into politics working on George Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign, and then earned a law degree from the University of Michigan.
He went to work in the Bush White House in 1989 as an associate counsel and then learned the legislative ropes as deputy assistant and director of Bush’s Office of Legislative Affairs.
He won a special election in 1993 to succeed Republican Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr., for whom he had interned as an undergraduate, and became a confidant of GOP leadership.
His ties to the Bush family deepened when he left his House seat to become George W. Bush’s U.S. trade representative in 2005, and later was director of the Office of Management and Budget.
In 2008 after he had left the Cabinet and was working in the private sector in Ohio, he was mentioned as an outsider choice to be the running mate for the Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
That spot went to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Portman began laying the groundwork for another run at public office in the next election cycle.
He won election to an open Senate seat in 2010, easily succeeding the popular Republican George Voinovich.
In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney thought so much of him he had Portman portray President Barack Obama in rehearsal debates and ended up on Romney’s short list of choices for vice president. Romney picked Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who went on to succeed Boehner as speaker.
Portman’s Cabinet position as the younger Bush’s chief trade negotiator could make for some awkward moments at the Republican convention. Trump has blasted the trade deals the United States has made in the last few years.
He has, of course, trained much of his fire on the Obama administration and Obama’s first-term secretary of State, who just happens to be the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
But Portman was at the forefront of an aggressive trade agenda under Bush, which focused on knocking down trade barriers in agreements such as the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement and the Doha Round of global trade talks.
Portman has since stepped back from full-throated defense of traditionally GOP trade positions, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but his record on free-trade deals is extensive and out of step with Trump’s evisceration of trade deals that he says “stink.”
Further showing how much the 2016 convention isn’t exactly Portman’s crowd will be the absence of Portman’s patrons. Neither George Bush nor George W. Bush will attend, nor will Romney, nor will his Senate colleague, McCain.
Making things even more potentially awkward is how Ohio Gov. John Kasich will position himself during the convention.
Kasich made a run for president against Trump. He won only Ohio and suspended his campaign in May but won praise for his demeanor and for not engaging in some of the caustic rhetoric deployed during the primary by Trump and others.
“I’m really proud of the way our governor has conducted himself with this campaign,” says Marcia L. Fudge, the Democratic congresswoman who represents Cleveland.
Portman has endorsed Trump, but Kasich has not.
Strickland, whom Kasich defeated in the 2010 governor’s race, has brought that up on the trail as a plan of attack on Portman.
“Unlike John Kasich, who has the moral integrity, I think, to really question whether or not this man should be in the presidency, Rob Portman has not shown that kind of hesitancy,” he told Ohio reporters in late June.
Such criticisms, and Trump’s penchant for headlines, haven’t left much room for Portman to tout his record and appeal to the independents and crossover voters who could help him in his race.
There is the energy conservation package he worked on for years with a Democratic colleague, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, which he pushed through a GOP-controlled Congress to be signed last year by Obama. Or his efforts to address opioid addiction with members from both parties, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of neighboring West Virginia. Or even his early conversion, relative to his party, to support same-sex marriage in 2013 after his son Will came out as gay.
Democrats’ efforts to tie Portman to Trump might make a difference in the tight Senate race. In his 2010 campaign, Portman won with 57 percent against Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher’s 39 percent.
In northeast Ohio, he ran basically even with Fisher, in a GOP wave year.
Making a dent in any support or good will Portman has in the Cleveland area could prove decisive in a race the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates as “tilts Republican.”
So what are Portman’s plans as the Trump-led forces come to town?
“We’re doing a lot of exciting stuff,” Portman says, ticking off a list of activities not officially affiliated with the convention, such as building a Habitat for Humanity house, participating in an event for wounded service members and conducting a volunteer appreciation event at Cuyahoga Community College.
“I’ll bring in speakers who you’re not otherwise going to see because they’re not going to get into the convention, probably,” he says.
Outside looking in
So it will come down to this. Instead of the belle of the ball, Portman will be, at least partially, the reluctant host, a player without a game.
Portman wouldn’t even commit to speaking at a national nominating convention in his home state. That would be the first time, as he himself notes, he won’t speak at one since 1996.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said in June when pressed about whether he would be among Cleveland’s speakers.
So Portman, the consummate political insider, will be gazing at the convention’s proceedings somewhat from the outside, waiting for the party crashers to leave, so he can get the furniture back in place and get back on the path to re-election.