CLEVELAND (AP) — Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman and his re-election team have been beating the bushes and sifting through reams of data for more than a year.
Donald Trump has visited the state once since clinching the GOP presidential nomination.
Republicans say Trump needs to take a page from Portman’s playbook, and they worry that Trump’s flyby approach to one of the most important states on the electoral map won’t give him the edge he needs over Democrat Hillary Clinton, who already has a strong Ohio operation.
Portman narrowly leads his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, while Trump and Clinton are deadlocked in Ohio. Some Republicans complain that Trump could be ahead if he were to make a more specialized effort in the state.
“If you can’t speak to everybody, you can’t win statewide,” said Ohio Republican consultant Jai Chabria, until recently a top aide to GOP Gov. John Kasich.
Certainly Trump has more states than just Ohio on his mind. He has said he can win states traditionally carried by Democrats, such as New York and California. But he must win some places where 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney lost, and he has pointed to the upper Midwest, where his tough talk on trade resonates with some blue-collar workers.
Ohio, worth 18 electoral votes, has been carried by every winning candidate for president since 1964, and by a margin of less than 3 percentage points in the past four White House elections.
Trump came in second in the state’s GOP primary to Kasich, and Kasich has yet to back Trump, citing his former rival’s divisive rhetoric and positions.
It’s a message Trump will have to fundamentally change if he hopes to appeal to more of Ohio’s diverse electorate, beyond the working-class white voters in the southeast part of the state with whom his populist economic theme resonates most clearly, Chabria said. Trump lacks a large staff in the state focused exclusively on promoting him, relying instead on the roughly 50 Republican National Committee workers promoting the entire GOP ticket.
Of Clinton, by contrast, Chabria said: “They may have an older machine, but at least they have a machine.”
It’s understandable that Portman’s future depends on Ohio. For Trump, it’s still critical. Beating Clinton there and neighboring Michigan or Pennsylvania could offset a potential Clinton victory in Florida, worth 29 votes of the 270 needed to clinch the presidency.
By the end of the month, Portman is expected to have contacted 3 million voters. He has had a team on the ground for a year and a half, and has 15 paid employees staffing 10 offices. Portman visits at least one office every weekend, his campaign manager, Corry Bliss, said.
“The target of our grassroots campaign is identifying swing voters, identifying the issues they care about and communicating with them,” Bliss said.
Portman has committed $15 million from his campaign to television advertising, much of it addressing heroin addiction, a big concern for swing-voting suburban women, but also the ailing coal industry, a priority in the southeast part of the state.
Trump has spent no money in Ohio on advertising. The RNC staff is also promoting Portman and the rest of the GOP ticket. Just last month, he named an Ohio director, an experienced state operative, Bob Paduchik, who ran Portman’s 2010 campaign.
State GOP Chairman Matt Borges touts the combined RNC and state party effort and contends Republicans who were in “mourning” over Kasich’s drop from the race in May are beginning to coalesce around Trump.
“I just completely and utterly reject this notion that (Clinton is) ahead of us,” Borges said.
Clinton has been to Ohio four times since effectively locking up the Democratic nomination. Her campaign also has spent an average of $1 million per week on television advertising in Ohio since mid-June and has about 100 paid organizers in the state.
Michigan’s neighbor and a major auto and parts manufacturer itself, Ohio was hit hard by deep job cuts in the industry, giving Trump’s stance on trade some traction. Reports show dozens in Ohio dying of heroin overdoses every week in the suburbs of its numerous metro areas, and workers in Ohio’s southeast worry about the future of the coal industry, in light of higher environmental standards.
Yet, Trump also shows no sign of tailoring his message to Ohio.
During his one visit to Ohio since clinching the nomination, Trump pledged to defeat the Islamic State group responsible for deadly attacks in the United States and abroad. He also promised to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade pact with Asian nations, which he told the audience “will do to you worse to you than NAFTA’s done,” referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
At no time during the rally near Cincinnati did he mention heroin or the coal industry. Instead, he spent much of the time accusing Clinton of lying about sending and receiving classified information on a private email server in her home when she was secretary of state.
“These are all lies. We say, lie, lie, lie. Dirty rotten liar,” Trump said at campaign rally near Cincinnati on July 6.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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