Despite a favorable electoral climate for Republicans and former Rep. Rob Portman's huge funding advantage over his Democratic opponent in the contest for Ohio's U.S. Senate seat, polls show the race in a dead heat.
Conservatives and "tea party" activists say Mr. Portman's record as a moderate Republican has failed to fire up not only core GOP voters but also what may prove just as important to victory - the "tea party" movement. Complicating the picture is the failure of that movement to meet expectations in some of the May 4 Ohio GOP primary elections.
Mr. Portman's resume, though extensive, has elements that raise red flags for conservatives - his service in the White House of President George H.W. Bush, who raised taxes and enlarged government; his election to six terms in the U.S. House, where he voted for the kind of spending that tea party supporters oppose; and his service as U.S. trade representative and then budget director in the big-spending George W. Bush administration.
"The tea party sees Portman as the establishment's guy, so the GOP establishment now is saying, 'Don't dismiss him just because he's a party guy,' " Ralph King, a coordinator for the Ohio Tea Party Patriots, told The Washington Times. "But that's asking us to look past his record - giving money to the United Nations and opposing [Colorado Republican] Tom Tancredo's try for a border measure in Congress."
That resume may explain why Mr. Portman, 54, is in a close race with the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, 58, to fill the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich, offering Democrats one of their few chances nationwide to "pick up" a Senate seat.
Real Clear Politics lists the race as a tossup, and its average of the four latest polls in Ohio shows Mr. Fisher leading Mr. Portman by 0.7 percentage point. The Democrat also holds a modest lead in all three of the most recent polls, with Mr. Portman favored only in a Public Policy Polling survey taken March 20-21. None of the polls has given a big edge to either man, but they are surprising for an election year not particularly congenial to Democrats.
Mr. Fisher also shows less of a knack for attracting donors than does Mr. Portman.
Running unopposed in the GOP primary, Mr. Portman reported raising $2.35 million during the first three months of this year, with $7.7 million in cash on hand. He said more than 5,600 individuals gave to the campaign in the first quarter of 2010, for a reported total 13,000 individual contributors, more than 80 percent of whom are Ohioans.
Mr. Fisher, who had to fight off a primary opponent, reported raising $550,000 in the first quarter, with $1 million in cash on hand.
Ohio's tea party movement has shown some strength, winning 20 of the 51 contested seats on the state GOP central committee in the May 4 vote. But in two GOP primary contests for statewide offices, the tea party candidates garnered only about a third of the vote.
"The tea party failed to show it can have an impact on Republican politics in Ohio," GOP activist Dan Cord told The Times. "They had the chance and didn't do it. I say that as someone who is sympathetic to the tea party movement."
Republicans constitute about a third of the Ohio electorate, so if tea party candidates gained about one-third of the GOP vote, that would imply a strength of about 10 percent or 11 percent of the state's total electorate.
"In a tight race, they will make the difference," Steve Salvi, a Cleveland Democrat who attends Tea Party Patriots meetings and who says he regularly exchanges e-mail with the disaffected Republicans, independents and the handful of other Democrats who make up the tea party and 9/12 movements.
Mr. King and Mr. Salvi argue that some people expected too much from the tea party its first time out, with virtually no money or professional advice to help it. Besides, sympathizers argue, the movement's two-part strategy is not just to influence primary contests, but also to begin taking over the party by capturing county and state committees, dominating state party conventions and winning delegates to the quadrennial Republican presidential nominating convention, much as the conservative evangelicals did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Still, Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio University, said that "estimating the general election strength of this new tea party movement is difficult at best."
The leader of a statewide tea party coalition said Mr. Portman probably will get the movement's votes in the end if only because of the alternative.
"We have no huge policy differences with Portman, but there is no strong feeling about him either. Nobody in our movement dislikes him, but there is no strong feeling of advocacy for him either," said Chris Littleton, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, which he describes as a coalition of tea party and other conservative-minded grass-roots groups in the state.
"We are at war with the Republican Party, which we feel is corrupt and self-serving in this state," Mr. Littleton told The Times. "Republicans seem to want to manufacture prosperity and Democrats want to manufacture equality. I had never voted in a Republican Party primary before. Or a Democratic primary. And I think the Libertarian Party just isn't pragmatic."
The Tea Party Patriots' Mr. King said the atmosphere of Ohio politics may help Mr. Portman, but at the expense of another establishment-backed Republican candidate.
"In the end, I think our people will come out for Portman - and for two reasons," Mr. King said. "First, the party is pushing them, saying, 'Would you rather have Lee Fisher?' Second, Mike DeWine is likely to be offered up as a sacrifice."
Mr. DeWine was a two-term U.S. senator who became the GOP nominee for state attorney general May 4 despite tea party efforts to defeat him in the primary.
Though consistently pro-life and against same-sex marriage, Mr. DeWine regularly voted with the gun-control lobby, supported the withdrawn nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, voted for federal minimum wage increases and opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Mr. King said tea party voters, not fully satisfied with the slate of GOP nominees, may take out their disappointment on Mr. DeWine by ignoring his attorney general candidacy on Election Day, while voting - perhaps with noses held - for Mr. Portman in the Senate race.
Portman spokesman Jessica Towhey noted that her boss has been endorsed by Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who for many years has been asking candidates across the country to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.
"Rob has a very strong record on cutting taxes, limiting government, trying to reduce the deficit and making sure government is held responsible to the taxpayers," Ms. Towhey told The Times.
She said that when Mr. Portman was director of the Office of Management and Budget, "he presented Congress with a plan for balancing the budget by 2012. But Congress ignored it and continued its spending binge."
Mr. Portman also "put all earmarks, federal contracts and grants online," she added.
Mr. Fisher's press secretary, John Collins, said his boss will be able to raise enough money to defeat Mr. Portman now that he doesn't have to spend campaign cash to defeat a primary competitor.
"Lee is confident he will have the resources to show voters a clear choice between Congressman Portman, who spent 20 years in Washington supporting tax breaks for companies that export jobs," Mr. Collins told The Times. "This is a choice between Wall Street and Main Street values."
Mr. Collins said Mr. Portman, unlike Mr. Fisher, has a plan to hold Wall Street accountable and to "reinvest in Main Street values."
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