GOP senator’s re-election campaign organization is much more extensive than that of presidential nominee
By REID J. EPSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal
Updated Sept. 29, 2016 9:41 p.m. ET
TOLEDO, Ohio—If Donald Trump wins Ohio, it may be because of the groundwork laid by Rob Portman, the state’s Republican senator who avoided the stage, the presidential nominee and the spotlight during the Republican Party’s Cleveland convention in July.
Mr. Trump’s campaign only recently started organizing voters here—months after Democratic rival Hillary Clinton—while Mr. Portman has for nearly two years been identifying and courting GOP voters in anticipation of a tough re-election race.
Consequently, Ohio may be a rare case study in reverse political coattails, with big stakes for Mr. Trump. Ohio has backed the presidential winners in the past 13 elections, and no Republican in modern history has won the White House without capturing Ohio.
In typical presidential years, the White House nominee drives party turnout for down-ticket candidates. Here, the Portman campaign, which began recruiting volunteers in high school government classes across the state in March 2015, is the primary point of contact for GOP voters.
“In Ohio, everyone is riding Rob Portman’s coattails,” said Donald Larson, a Republican who is challenging Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
It is an advantage that may help Mr. Trump steal a state from the Democratic column; polls show Mrs. Clinton and him in a dead heat. Meanwhile, Mr. Portman is leading his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, by 13 percentage points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of public surveys.
While an assist from Mr. Portman, who endorsed Mr. Trump but hasn’t appeared with him, could make Ohio more competitive, the GOP nominee’s organizational weaknesses in other swing states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may present bigger problems.
Mr. Trump’s challenges were evident when he campaigned in Toledo last week. There was no one from the campaign in the lobby of the theater that hosted his rally asking supporters if they were registered to vote, a standard campaign tactic. Instead, John Hill, a frequent Ohio Republican Party volunteer, came on his own with a stack of voter registration forms.
At 7:15 p.m. the night after his rally, the Trump campaign office in downtown Toledo was locked with no one inside. At another local Trump office, in suburban Perrysburg, two women sat by themselves at 8:30 p.m. The women said they weren’t allowed to speak to reporters.
That same night, the Clinton campaign’s Toledo office was buzzing with supporters, such as retired autoworker Linda Kulwicki, who was making phone calls to voters until after 10 p.m. A Portman office on Toledo’s west side—one of 11 the senator operates independently of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee—also stayed open until 10 p.m.
Mr. Trump’s Ohio state director, Bob Paduchik, said Trump volunteers don’t have to be in offices to help the campaign. He said Trump volunteers can make calls from their homes. “I think that we’ve had a much better grass-roots approach here in Ohio that allows us to excite people and energize our volunteers and supporters in ways that Democrats struggle to do so,” he said.
A strong turnout operation can be worth up to 3 percentage points in a close state, said David Plouffe, the architect of President Barack Obama’s national campaigns. “The best way to get someone who is not sure they’re going to come out is to have a human talk to them,” Mr. Plouffe said. “In a close race that can matter.”
The Clinton campaign has more than 300 staffers working from 57 offices in Ohio. The Trump campaign, which wouldn’t reveal its tally of Ohio staff members, has delegated much of the nuts-and-bolts of voter outreach to the RNC, which has 112 staffers in the state in 31 offices it shares with local party officials and the Trump campaign.
“They’re starting to do the things that you would see in a presidential campaign but they are behind where they should be and far behind where Secretary Clinton is,” said John Weaver, the political strategist for Ohio’s GOP Gov. John Kasich. “You need a long runway to be as effective as possible and they don’t have that runway.”
When a Portman volunteer canvassed likely Republican voters one afternoon last week in a well-to-do neighborhood in the Toledo suburb of Maumee, she encountered people who have been in frequent contact with the senator’s campaign but have yet to hear from Mr. Trump’s people.
Chris Uecker, a 36-year-old pilot for Delta Air Lines, said he has voted for Republicans in each presidential election since 2000. He said he’d vote for Mr. Portman but isn’t yet sold on Mr. Trump, with whose campaign he’s had no contact.
The Clinton campaign and the super PAC backing it, Priorities USA Action, have reserved $16.5 million in advertising time between this week and Election Day. Mr. Trump’s campaign has reserved $1.25 million on the Ohio airwaves.
The National Rifle Association bought an additional $2.7 million on Ohio TV to attack Mrs. Clinton. No other pro-Trump super PACs have bought Ohio advertising, according to a person monitoring campaign advertising spending.
Mr. Portman, meanwhile, is courting voters who don’t typically vote for Republicans. Last week his campaign announced it is spending $250,000 in advertising on Spanish-language TV, even though just 3.6% of Ohioans are Hispanic. It is also advertising heavily in local newspapers that cater to Ohio’s black communities.
“We’re very proud of the robust organization we’ve built over the past two years across all of Ohio’s 88 counties,” said Corry Bliss, Mr. Portman’s campaign manager. “With the help of thousands of volunteers and interns, we have contacted over four million targeted voters and our outreach will help all Republicans running in 2016.”
The Trump campaign has a fractious relationship with Mr. Kasich, the state’s popular GOP governor who defeated Mr. Trump in this year’s GOP primary. He has refused to endorse Mr. Trump or vouch for him to suburban voters who remain skeptical of the nominee. Earlier this month, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus suggested Mr. Kasich may be barred from running for the GOP nomination for president again because he has refused to back Mr. Trump.
There also has been tension between the Trump campaign and local RNC officials. One RNC Ohio communications directors quit because he refused to work to elect Mr. Trump and another left because the Trump campaign demanded to vet all of his discussions with reporters. There has been no RNC communications director in place for Ohio since August.
Several attendees interviewed at Mr. Trump’s Toledo rally said they haven’t had much contact with his campaign beyond fundraising solicitations.
Marilyn Caputo, a retired baker from Monclova, said she’s donated to the campaign but didn’t hear about his rally from Trump officials. “I heard about it in the newspaper,” she said.
Write to Reid J. Epstein at Reid.Epstein@wsj.com
Kasich criticizes Trump without mentioning Trump
Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have had a flashback to those snowy days in New Hampshire and Michigan this afternoon while talking foreign policy and national security before about 300 people.
The second-term governor and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate addressed a forum sponsored by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Kasich never used the name of the GOP presidential candidate he battled in the primaries and refuses to support — Donald Trump — but he made not-so-subtle digs at the top of his party’s ticket.
“If we run down NATO, we’re making a horrible mistake … NATO is critical to us,” Kasich said.
Trump has questioned the effectiveness, and future, of NATO and called out other countries during his debate Monday with Democrat Hillary Clinton for failing to pay their fair share in militarily protecting themselves and member countries.
“Anybody who would wink and nod at Vladimir Putin about the future of Ukraine, you think about that for a second,” Kasich said in an apparent reference to Trump’s kind remarks about the Russian president.
“If NATO gets weak, if we lift sanctions, if we don’t really stand tough about what they have done in Crimea … how many people will be enslaved (in Ukraine) and how many decades we will they live like that?”
Kasich also seemingly criticized both Trump and Clinton on trade. The governor recently joined President Barack Obama at the White House to support the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement opposed by the candidates. “We don’t have a right as a nation to retreat from the world. What are we, crazy?” Kasich asked.
Kasich called for the United States to send a strong international message that it will not tolerate terrorism, saying whether it involves the military or diplomacy, the U.S. must make it known to the “radicals and crazies in this world that we will not tolerate them.”
He called for winning over “those people who sit on the fence, who cannot believe deep inside their souls that slaughtering innocent people in airports or in trains or running them over with a car is not the way civilization is ever going to work and they’re not going anywhere but to the depths of hell for that.”
America must project itself as a force for good in the world, the governor said. “The world needs us to lead and we ourselves can never afford to shrink from that,” he said.
The forum also heard from Robert Gates, a former CIA director and the secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 to 2011.
Gates, who has claimed Trump is “beyond repair,” lamented that America has allowed humanitarian and other aid to foreign counties to diminish when they are needed to help build hope and democracy from the ground up.
“We have unilaterally disarmed when it comes to the other tools in the national security tool kit other than hammers,” Gates said. “The only tool left in the kit is the military … and the greater willingness of American presidents to use the military not as a last resort, but as a first option.”
Gates was not asked any political questions, but was questioned about what advice he would give the nation’s new commander-in-chief.
He replied that the next president should surround himself or herself with a good staff, one willing to challenge him or her, and not appoint a cabinet that largely consists of “paying off political debts.”
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