It takes a certain force of will to turn away, even briefly, from the burlesque of Donald Trump’s transition into the presidency. But that’s not the entirety of U.S. politics, just as his election wasn’t the lone political story of 2016. Other contests had important lessons. One especially draws my eye.
It was a gigantic win for Republicans, who will use it as a model. But Democrats can learn as much from it, because it mirrored some mistakes they made nationwide.
I’m referring to Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election in Ohio. His seat was one that Democrats identified early as a potential steal, and through much of 2015 and 2016, political analysts tagged the race as one of the most competitive in the country. But he ended up winning by 21 points.
Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio by a smaller margin of 8 points, so Portman didn’t merely surf a Republican wave. And while the Democratic Party essentially gave up on the race two months before Election Day, diverting money elsewhere, that didn’t fully explain the size of Portman’s victory. Nor did his formidable war chest of funds.
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He and his team prevailed with a series of smart decisions and a conviction – borne out by the results – that even in these viciously polarized times, there remain voters who are moved less by partisan fever than by whether a candidate seems to be duly and humbly focused on them and their particular problems.
“I very much believe – no offense to anyone – that Rob Portman ran the best campaign in America,” Matthew Borges, chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio, told me.
“People think this world of campaigns is like these stupid movies and, at some point, some grand decision suddenly tips the scales: a particular ad, a particular event,” he noted. But what Portman did, he said, was toil away, methodically and precisely, with one question above all others in mind: What’s the path to the most votes?
He never let vanity tug him away from that path. He was ruthlessly disciplined and relentlessly practical. That’s not a sexy formula, but more often than not, it’s a winning one.
Portman’s victory was hardly pretty – victory often isn’t. A barrage of attack ads early on branded his opponent, Ted Strickland, who governed Ohio from 2007-11, a failure in office and a hostage to the liberal causes he subsequently worked for in Washington.
And seemingly contradicting a history of advocacy for trade, Portman came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. He later garnered union endorsements that don’t typically go to a Republican.
But other factors had considerable sway, prime among them the Democrats’ choice of Strickland to challenge Portman. Strickland made sense on a superficial level, and the party initially convinced itself that it had hit a home run. A former Ohio governor, he had instant name recognition and deep experience, and was guaranteed to raise gobs of money.
But he was 15 years older than Portman, a fellow political insider and a lackluster campaigner. He couldn’t use the most effective tactic against an incumbent and cast himself as a spirited insurgent or agent of change. Portman sometimes played the underdog: a nifty trick when your government résumé is as long as his. Having Strickland as an opponent made it possible.
And Strickland had been voted out of the governor’s office, after one term, at a time of enormous economic pain. Portman, whose six years in the Senate coincided with an improving Ohio economy, simply had to remind voters of that. And did he ever.
In early 2015, he was 9 points behind Strickland in polls. By late summer 2016, he had established enough of a lead for Democrats to surrender hope. How?
He said little about Trump. Once Trump was the party’s de facto presidential nominee, Portman endorsed him, tersely, and that was pretty much that. Questions kept coming, from reporters eager for melodrama. But Portman and his aides kept pivoting to Portman’s record and his plans, and unlike Republicans in other Senate races, they wouldn’t be worn down.
“I would give the same succinct answer: This race isn’t between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it’s between Rob Portman and Ted Strickland,” Portman said in an interview late last week. Sticking to that took extraordinary restraint.
Similarly, he didn’t inject himself into divisive national debates or tend to a public profile outside Ohio. You seldom saw him on national shows, but he was on Ohio TV constantly, a contrast that assured Ohio voters that they were his concern. In fact he and his aides insisted that debates with Strickland be moderated by Ohio journalists. No flashy news personalities from elsewhere.
Countering voters’ cynicism that politicians are more interested in shouting at one another than in getting anything done, he presented Ohioans with a litany of bipartisan federal legislation that bore his name. He promoted a record of laws that made strides toward matters as concrete as “repairing the damage of harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie or dealing in very specific ways with the heroin and drug epidemic in Ohio,” he said.
For that reason, among others, most of Ohio’s major newspapers endorsed him over Strickland.
“People want you to get stuff done,” he told me. “That gets lost in a red-and-blue world where people think you just rev up the base to win. We talked to everybody.”
But in tailored, targeted ways. When I visited his campaign headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, a few days before the election, his campaign manager, Corry Bliss, took me through the data-driven crafting of some 20 different appeals to 20 kinds of voters, based on their locations and lifestyles. Maps covered the office walls, but there was no comfy furniture, no snazzy décor. The Portman campaign wasn’t squandering any money on that.
Bliss, 35, is emerging as one of his party’s most closely watched young strategists. In 2014, he managed the re-election campaign of Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who seemed destined for defeat until Bliss and others swooped in around Labor Day to overhaul the effort.
One of Bliss’ first interventions was to take away the dense briefing book with which Roberts was preparing for a debate and replace it with a single sheet that instructed the senator to repeat, ad nauseam, that a vote for his opponent was a vote for Barack Obama. Kansans aren’t so keen on the president. On Democrats, period.
A fast-talking, vivid character, Bliss is obsessed with horse racing and fond of translating its verities to politics.
“Pace makes the race,” he told me. “You only get rewarded if you’re winning at the wire.” And so everyone in the Portman campaign stayed calm when they were behind and didn’t, for example, blow too much money in a sudden panic.
“Don’t get caught in traffic,” Bliss decreed. That’s crucial for a thoroughbred and it was vital for Portman, who couldn’t let Trump’s antics obscure his Ohio-centric messages.
These rules are no less important for being obvious, and Portman obeyed them, with a campaign that relied not on sweeping romance but on hard-nosed calculation. And on the wager, apparently correct, that you don’t have to whip voters into a frenzy. You just have to convince them that you’re the more determined, attentive, effective workhorse.