COLUMBUS, OH – Just two years onto the job, Ohio’s junior senator, Rob Portman, might just be the key to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s hopes of winning the Buckeye State for next week, and the freshman senator is under tremendous pressure to deliver.
A former frontrunner to round out Romney’s ticket, Portman has become one of the most prominent and effective surrogates for the GOP candidate, having also assumed a larger role in the Romney campaign by way of playing President Barack Obama in practice debate sessions.
Republican Senator from Ohio Rob Portman explains why the state is giving Mitt Romney trouble during this election cycle. Portman says in the past few weeks, however, the momentum has shifted.
More than that, Portman has been intimately involved in building the kind of organization upon which Romney will need to lean if he has hopes of winning Ohio, without which the former Massachusetts governor’s path to 270 electoral votes would become dicier.
It was a Saturday afternoon in late July when Portman stood in front of a small group of reporters to participate in a routine he had become quite familiar with: deflect differently-worded questions about his chances of becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Moments before, he had been praising volunteers at Romney's Ohio headquarters for reaching their 1 millionth voter. Portman, who chairs Romney's efforts in the state, told the room full of supporters that grassroots campaigning would make the difference in this election and that Ohio would likely determine the next president. That's why, when he stepped in front of cameras, the questions were all about the pressure he would feel to secure Ohio – which twice went for George W. Bush, but voted for Obama in 2008 – back toward Republicans.
"I already feel the pressure," he finally confided in a moment of candor before diving into a boiler plate answer about the enthusiasm he's seeing in the state.
Al Behrman / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, after Portman introduced Romney at a campaign stop at Jet Machine, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, in Cincinnati.
Portman was the subject of so much “veepstakes” speculation precisely because of the possibility that he could help deliver his home state for the Republican ticket.
Even though Romney tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan instead, Portman said his burden is no less heavy. When asked how much pressure he feels now with polls showing a dead heat just days before the election, Portman simply said, “A lot.”
The freshman senator is deeply involved in Romney’s Ohio operation, a commitment that extends far beyond his public appearances at rallies with the former Massachusetts governor. Portman has an intense interest in grassroots campaigning and checks in with Buckeye State staff multiple times each day with questions about how many door knocks and phone calls have been made. It will make the difference, he feels, in a close race.
The pressure to deliver Ohio, Portman says, comes not only from the fact that a Republican winning the presidency is almost certainly dependent on winning this state, but also from his concern that a second term for Obama will mean four more years of gridlock in Congress.
If Republicans pull off a victory here, Romney staff will point to Portman as a big reason why. He’ll become more than the man who helped the GOP nominee win a debate. He’ll become the man who helped Romney win Ohio – and quite possibly the presidency.
Romney advisers are quick to cite Portman’s thorough knowledge of the state, but Ohio Republicans point to the personal relationships he’s built over the years as invaluable. Those relationships – with county chairs or part-time volunteers – can motivate supporters to make phone calls and knock doors simply as a favor to their down-to-earth senator.
Portman solidified many of those relationships during his 2010 Senate campaign, and he is leaning on those supporters to do now for Romney what they did for him in 2010. (Many of those relationships were even forged well before 2010, during Portman’s time as a congressman and during his involvement with the Bush campaigns in the state.)
"We're using our folks…We're telling them, ‘Look, this is important to me,’ and most of them jumped in on the primary and all of them are helping now,” said Portman. “So we've kept our network up from our campaign two years ago and we know these people are reliable, we know they're really effective campaigners.”
Bob Paduchik, who ran Portman’s campaign two years ago, said much of the senator’s electoral success can be attributed to his understanding of the importance of retail politics. While Portman remains largely unknown as a national political figure, many of those who are running call centers are familiar with him on a personal level because of his commitment to the ground game.
Portman’s value extends to campaign surrogacy, too. The Ohio senator is keenly aware of Romney’s vulnerability on the 2009 auto industry bailout in a state where the industry accounts for an estimated one in eight jobs. In recent days, Portman has stepped forward to defend Romney on the topic of the bailout, an issue which has re-emerged in the closing days of the campaign.
"It's the policies that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to put in place that are going to be good for the auto industry that are going to make it strong," Portman said at a rally in Avon Lake, Ohio on Monday. "To make sure that it stays in Ohio."
But Portman’s focus on the campaign’s nuts-and-bolts might be his greatest asset, and there are signs that his emphasis is paying dividends. Romney volunteers in Ohio have knocked on more than 2 million doors this election cycle, a number they tout as one of the highest among the swing states.
"They all know Rob. He's brought them coffee and donuts, he's brought them pizza," said Paduchik. “He’s like the general that gets out among the troops, it really inspires people."
Just last week Portman did exactly that during four stops to Victory Centers throughout Northeast Ohio. In Avon Lake, OH, he profusely apologized for not having enough donuts for the larger than expected crowd.
“I have found in my own campaigns that when you lose sight of the grassroots, you tend to lose,” he said while traveling between stops.
That emphasis on the ground game is also why Portman has been in such constant contact with Romney’s Ohio State Director, Scott Jennings.
“He's like an idea factory of how to get more volunteers into a victory center or how to get an issue in front of the press in a particular county,” said Jennings. “He constantly has strategic thinking that is invaluable.”
Portman’s role has led to an uncommon situation in which not being selected as VP has freed Portman up to help the nominee in other ways that may prove more beneficial.
“No matter what happened, I was going to pour my heart into this,” he said, dismissing the notion.
Win, lose or draw, the consensus from Romney’s high command is that they it will be a much closer battle because the state’s Republican senator has been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Romney throughout the campaign.
“What [Portman] has is a passion for Ohio. It's hard to quantify just how valuable that is to us,” said senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden. “He's more than just a good host through Ohio- he's a fierce advocate for Ohio.”
NBC's Garrett Haake contributed reporting.