Incumbent GOP senators facing bitter re-election battles faced a choice once Donald Trump became the Republican nominee: endorse their party’s standard-bearer, play coy with noncommittal support, or staunchly refuse to back the party’s presidential nominee. The endangered GOP senators who have stiff-armed Trump are now suffering the political consequences, while those who got behind Trump and moved on are riding high.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, one of the Senate’s most heavily targeted GOP incumbents, has been performing well in recent polls, notching an 8-point lead over ousted former Gov. Ted Strickland, according to a Monday survey from Monmouth University. Portman, who officially endorsed Trump for president after Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out of the race, has refrained from hammering Trump during the Republican nominee’s controversial low points. That’s not to say Portman has been an enthusiastic champion for Trump — but he endorsed the nominee and hasn’t jumped at easy opportunities to criticize him.
“Ayotte has done it in a way that can invite criticism from both sides. She tried to thread the needle — and she poked herself with it instead.”
In contrast to Portman stands New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. She is struggling in her bid for re-election against Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte trailed Hassan in the last three public polls from 1 to 10 points. Unlike Portman — who endorsed Trump and moved on — Ayotte tried to hedge. She said she would vote for Trump, but would not endorse the GOP nominee.
“Portman has long anticipated a tough re-election and has positioned himself accordingly,” Dr. John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, told LifeZette. “They both tied themselves to Trump, but the problem with the way Ayotte has done it is that she’s done it in a way that can invite criticism from both sides. She tried to thread the needle — and she poked herself with it instead.”
Although there are many factors determining the two incumbent senators’ chances — their campaign strategies, and the unique complexities of their states, for instance — the way that both politicians have chosen to handle their party’s presidential nominee could decide their re-election.
“I think Ayotte is being more hurt than Portman is being helped,” Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian, said. “First-world politics is that you’ve got to consolidate your base. And as difficult as it might be for some Republicans, it’s probably best for them to, you know, endorse Trump and then move on.”
This was certainly Portman’s tactic.
When Portman was asked whether he valued Kasich’s support more than Trump’s in his bid for re-election in Ohio, Portman answered, “Yes.”
“Yes. No one is more important than John Kasich in this campaign,” Portman said, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “I don’t think there’s any surrogate who is more effective … I talk about John Kasich on the campaign because it’s what we need to do in Washington, D.C.”
Dr. Mark Smith, a political science professor at Cedarville University in Ohio, believes that Portman acted wisely in emphasizing the need for Kasich’s home support.
“I think that in general for Rob Portman’s re-election, his association with Governor Kasich is probably more important than his association with Donald Trump,” Smith said, adding that Kasich “has such a huge local influence with the state’s Republican Party. ”
Portman seems to have played his cards well in both endorsing his party’s nominee and in emphasizing his party’s need for Kasich’s support in their home state. “So Portman has endorsed Trump, but I guarantee you he’s not getting in bed with him, right?” Shirley said. “You know — he’s not proposing marriage to Donald Trump.”
Ayotte’s waffling and hedging, on the other hand, have only alienated Trump supporters and invited further rounds of media questioning her opinion of Trump.
Smith noted Ayotte, in particular, assumed distancing herself from Trump was the right move because it’s the conventional thinking in Republican Establishment circles.
“Well, it very well could be that we look back at this and say [Trump] helped the party by bringing in new voters. However, at the elite levels — and I’m talking about state party chairs, major donors — at the elite level, the party is clearly divided over Mr. Trump,” Smith said. “But at the elite level right now … that’s not going to help Kelly Ayotte if Donald Trump grows the party in November. She’s struggling with those same elites in her own state, so she’s trying to keep support of the traditional Republicans. Trump is obviously not, and that’s kind of where the rub is.”
Now that Trump has pulled out of his near-tailspin with more than a week of disciplined, resonant campaign activity, Portman can quietly enjoy the rising Trump tide in his state, comfortable with the added security of his own well-built campaign. Ayotte, meanwhile, will continue taking criticism from all sides.
“This is still August, and, you know, early voting starts next month in some states, but we’re still relatively early in the campaign,” Smith said. “So if Mr. Trump continues this sort of more disciplined approach and maybe comes back in the polls a little bit, then maybe politicians like Ayotte, Portman, will start to make different decisions about him at that point. Who knows? But this is a fluid situation, so we’re still nowhere near the end.”