WASHINGTON – Rob Portman and Ron Johnson rode a huge Republican wave into the U.S. Senate in 2010. Now, six years later, it appears one is catching a tube ride for a successful return to the upper chamber while the other is possibly facing a wipeout.
Portman, of Ohio, has opened a substantial lead over his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Ted Strickland, while Johnson finds himself trailing the man he defeated, former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, in a vaunted rematch. Bother men were viewed as underdogs at the beginning of Campaign 2016, but while Portman has managed a rally that may keep his seat on the Republican side of the aisle, Johnson is in serious trouble little more than a month out.
The outcome in both cases could prove important. Republicans currently hold a 54-46 edge over opposition Democrats and two independents who caucus with them in the Senate. A loss of five Republican seats – four if the Democrats recapture the White House – would return control to the Democrats.
Both Portman and Johnson benefited from running in 2010, a prosperous year for Republicans, picking up six seats in 2010. The economy remained in the doldrums after the collapse two years earlier, President Obama’s popularity was sliding, and the Affordable Care Act he pushed through, dubbed Obamacare, was widely disdained.
Portman further benefitted from running for an open seat as a result of the retirement of Sen. George Voinovich. He faced relatively weak opposition from his Democratic foe, then-Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, and, as a well-respected GOP operative who served in the House before taking the job of budget director during the administration of President George W. Bush, he had no trouble raising money.
Johnson faced a substantially more difficult challenge upending Feingold, who was widely known and respected among Wisconsin voters. Few gave Johnson, a successful businessman seeking public office for the first time, much of a chance.
But rumblings behind the scene were working to Johnson’s benefit. Statewide, Democrats were under attack, suffering not only from Obama’s unpopularity but voter disdain for Gov. Jim Doyle, whose tenure in Madison was burdened by fiscal and economic woes on both the state and national level. The Tea Party, a right-wing populist movement, was gaining strength and Johnson joyfully hopped on board.
Johnson made opposition to the Affordable Care Act the central theme of his campaign, asserting “now that they’ve passed Obamacare, our freedom is on life support.” His stance drew support from disaffected voters.
Johnson ran as an outsider against Feingold, an 18-year Hill veteran who had a well-earned reputation as a maverick. Johnson was able to self-finance much of his campaign and appeared to have some luck running during an off year, when Democrats tend to stay home to a greater degree than Republicans.
And the Feingold campaign was facing some internal strife. Never a great fundraiser – he was the primary voice for campaign finance reform during his time in the upper chamber – Feingold vowed to raise the majority of his campaign funds from Wisconsin residents. And he is well known as a micromanager. That placed him at odds with various campaign staffers, like media consultant Steve Eichenbaum, who later told Roll Call that Feingold dictated the content of his ad campaign, which proved ineffective.
“Had we won with this stuff, I wouldn’t have taken credit for it,” Eichenbaum said.
In the end, Johnson pulled off the upset in a year of GOP upsets, 52 percent to 47 percent.
But, as it often does, the political battleground has shifted significantly from 2010 and 2016.
Portman faced some obvious problems. Despite years of public service, including his tenure in the Senate, he was not a particularly well-known figure in Ohio, especially given that he replaced Voinovich, probably the state’s most popular elected official over a 20-year span.
He also drew a well-established Democratic challenger, former Gov. Ted Strickland, who had close ties to Hillary Clinton, who would become the Democratic presidential nominee, providing an opportunity to raise some capital. Running in a presidential election year assured Democrats will head to the polls in droves. Early surveys gave Strickland an edge – a Quinnipiac University poll released on June 22, 2015, for instance, gave the Democrat a lead of 46 percent to 40 percent.
But Strickland has proved, at least thus far, with a month to go before the election, to be something of a paper tiger. Portman raised $20.9 million for his re-election effort as of the June 30 campaign finance report and he is putting the money to good use. He jumped on Strickland early and often, running television ads criticizing the Democratic challenger for performing poorly during the 2008 economic collapse, citing massive job losses and his decision to drain the state emergency fund. A similar message has been delivered by independent groups supporting the Portman campaign.
The enormous ad buy allowed Portman to effectively define Strickland, who failed to effectively respond. His own ad campaign was late to the scene and his spending has been way below Portman’s levels.
Strickland has received little help from Clinton, who is running neck-and-neck with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, meaning coattails will almost certainly be limited. In Southeastern Ohio, the Appalachian portion of the state and Strickland’s home turf, a huge showing is vital. But the party’s onetime dominance in the mountains has seemingly cratered this election, owing to issues dealing with coal and culture.
That leaves Strickland with few opportunities. Quinnipiac, which early on showed him with a six-point lead, now shows Portman ahead by 17 points. Groups allied with Strickland have canceled ad buys and the Strickland campaign itself is cutting back on its advertising.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that Tom Lopach, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told a trade association that Strickland’s only chance is “if a wave comes in.” He credited Portman with running “a damn fine race.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Wisconsin is starkly different. Johnson remains a Tea Party candidate at a time when the movement has ebbed, at least in Wisconsin, which traditionally, at least, has been a progressive state.
Unlike 2010, it’s a presidential election year and all those Democrats who slumbered six years ago will be casting ballots. For example, the 2012 election, which featured a presidential contest, brought about 800,000 more voters to the Wisconsin polls than that 2010 election, helping Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) win a hotly contested race.
Wisconsin hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Clinton has a 6.5 percent lead over Trump in the Dairy State, according to an analysis by Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight website, perhaps providing an additional boost to the Feingold effort.
The Republican wave that aided Johnson’s initial victory is at low tide. GOP Gov. Scott Walker, for instance, who staged a short and unsteady presidential campaign of his own, has an approval rating of only 43 percent, according to the Marquette Law School poll, while 52 percent disapprove.
In his analysis, Larry Sabato, with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, early on cast Johnson as the most vulnerable Senate Republican, asserting that “even members of Johnson’s party seriously question whether he has made the kind of ideological concessions in the Senate that could help him win under conditions that probably won’t be as ideal as they were for him in 2010.”
Johnson is viewed as being to the right of his electorate despite the outcome six years ago and, as an inexperienced politician, he’s not exactly viewed as the second coming of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. His re-election effort has been hindered by gaffes, mostly minor, that Feingold has sought to use to his advantage.
It appears national Republicans are beginning to lose faith in Johnson’s ability to arrange a return engagement. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has canceled the time reserved to run ads in his behalf in the Wisconsin market, preferring to use the $800,000 saved on better positioned campaigns.