Gay Marriage Stand Won’t Cost Ohio GOP Senator His Seat

Portman begins to pull away in battleground state

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman holds a commanding lead over former Gov. Ted Strickland in his re-election race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman holds a commanding lead over former Gov. Ted Strickland in his re-election race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 29, 2016 at 5:00am

When Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced his decision to support marriage equality in March of 2013, he explained that his change of heart on the issue came after learning that his college-age son, Will, is gay. “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have,” Portman told local reporters.

The immediate question at the time was how the Ohio freshman senator’s reversal on gay marriage would affect his re-election chances in 2016. Running in the battleground state of Ohio would guarantee a close race no matter what. Going it alone as the first Republican senator ever to support marriage equality meant Portman could be risking his seat, if not his career.

The National Organization for Marriage immediately said it would work to defeat Portman in either his Senate re-election or a potential run for the White House. A handful of local conservative groups in Ohio came out against him, too. The Citizens for Community Values said Portman should resign, while a county Republican committee said it would endorse his primary challenger over the issue.  

But three years and a landmark Supreme Court decision later, Portman won his primary in March with 82 percent of the vote and is emerging as one of the few GOP senators in a battleground state to begin pulling away from a Democratic challenger. While Donald Trump has been a major issue in Ohio’s 2016 political scene, marriage equality has not.

[Will Pro-LGBT Stances Hurt GOP Senators?]

The latest Monmouth University poll shows Portman leading his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, by 8 points, even as Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 4 in the state. Portman’s favorability rating is 28 to 20 percent. Not great, but better than Strickland’s 23 to 37 percent unfavorable result.

Analysts following the race closely say Portman has run an almost-textbook campaign so far to position himself to weather the Trump storm, even though Portman himself endorsed his party’s nominee in May.

“If there’s anything Rob Portman’s campaign should be doing differently, I can’t think of what it is,” The Cook Political Report’s senior editor Jennifer Duffy said. “They’ve done everything they need to do.” Expecting a tough campaign, Portman assembled his campaign team very early — putting his manager, finance director and political director in place in January 2015. They have built tech-heavy infrastructure, along with a massive ground operation that included 500 summer interns.

Portman began the race with $5.8 million and has raised and spent millions to defeat Strickland since. And while outside groups are spending heavily in the state, including for Portman, Duffy said he has successfully kept his focus local, particularly on working to address misuse of prescription opioids in the state. Portman’s position on gay marriage has turned out to be a nonissue. “I have not heard it brought up in over a year,” Duffy said.

The issue has also not been a defining factor for the other three Republican senators who have come out in support of marriage equality since Portman made his announcement in 2013. Maine’s Susan Collins easily won another term in 2014. Incumbent Lisa Murkowski’s GOP primary in Alaska just came and went without any surprises. And while Sen. Mark S. Kirk is trailing badly in Illinois to Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Kirk’s position on gay marriage has mostly been a nonissue in the race.

[Portman, Kasich Head in Separate Directions on Trump]

With Portman ahead or tied with Strickland in every poll since February, the senator is beginning to look as good as anyone in a battleground state could have hoped at this point in a presidential election cycle that has been nothing less than volcanic. But it’s important to add here that anything can still happen. Hillary Clinton’s emails could reveal something nobody expected. WikiLeaks could dump an unimaginable trove of damaging secrets. Donald Trump could burst into a ball of flames.  

But if anything emerges to keep Rob Portman from winning, it’s safe to say gay marriage won’t be the reason.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.