A Trump Buffer? Portman Plans Own ‘Mini-Convention’ in Cleveland

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Senator Rob Portman applauds during a town hall meeting with Republican presidential candidate John Kasich on Jan. 31, 2016, in Bow, New Hampshire.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Ohio senator's campaign says planning began before Trump surge
  • Activities including building Habitat house may offer distance

Before Donald Trump, the decision to hold the Republican National Convention in Cleveland looked like a coup for Ohio Senator Rob Portman.

Now, it’s looking more like a nightmare for Portman, who is facing a tough re-election. One saving grace may be the Ohioan’s long-standing plan to hold his own events outside the convention perimeter to reward his supporters. That "mini-convention" could distance Portman from the polemic GOP front-runner, who has warned of riots if he’s denied the nomination.

Many Republicans are fretting that a Trump nomination -- or a messy floor fight to take it away from him -- could do deep damage to the party’s brand and its congressional prospects in November. Portman, who backs Ohio Governor John Kasich for the nomination, won’t have the option of skipping the national convention in his home state.

"We’re doing some interesting things there that are unrelated to the convention itself," Portman, a first-term senator who is key to the party’s hopes of maintaining control of the Senate, said in a recent interview at the Capitol.

"We’re going to have our own volunteer effort outside of the convention perimeter where we’re going to bring in volunteers from all around Ohio and have speakers come out to them and do our own mini-convention," he added.

Pressured Companies

Corporations are already under pressure to pull out of the convention, with 360,000 people signing petitions by ColorofChange and other groups urging Coca-Cola Co., Google Inc., Xerox Corp., AT&T Inc., Adobe Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and others not to bankroll the Republican National Convention with cash and in-kind contributions.

Portman’s campaign manager, Corry Bliss, noted the events have been in the works since long before Trump entered the picture, but he didn’t deny there could be benefits if the convention gets messy.

"Like any smart campaign or business, we built our plan to be successful under the most challenging circumstances," he said.

Portman’s extracurricular convention activities will include building a Habitat for Humanity house -- a tradition for Portman, who has worked at a Habitat site on his birthday, Dec. 19, for years.

Portman has long said he’s running a campaign built to win regardless of the nominee.

"We really decided this was going to be an uncertain year politically and we needed to redouble our efforts on what we can control, which is creating a foundation for success regardless of who’s at the top of the ticket," he said.

Grassroots Efforts

That plan includes building a robust grassroots operation, which will be on display in Cleveland.

The campaign plans to bus in hundreds of volunteers from across the state for a day of speeches and training. It’s partly aimed at thanking volunteers, and partly a day of action, with each volunteer given a call sheet of independent voters to take home.

"We have over 1,000 volunteers who have helped us contact over 1.5 million voters, and convention week is a great opportunity to thank our volunteers, engage them, and get them excited for the fall campaign," Bliss said. "It’s an outgrowth of the campaign we’ve been running for the past year and a half."

It’s also a way for Portman to accommodate at least some of the huge volume of requests for access to the actual convention.

Public Events

The campaign also plans to hold other events highlighting Portman’s record.

"Our events will be open press because we’re very proud of our message and the campaign we’re running," Bliss added.

Portman, for now, has partially sidestepped the Trump phenomenon by backing the long-shot bid of Kasich.

But Mark Weaver, a Republican political consultant in Columbus, Ohio, predicted significant awkwardness nonetheless should Trump win the nomination.

"There’ll be more contortions in position at the Republican convention than there will be at the summer Olympics in the gymnastics competition," he said.

Trump Factor

Portman continues to tread lightly around Trump. After all, he’ll need Trump’s voters in the fall.

"I’ve been vocal in opposition to some of the things he’s said, but you just run your own race," Portman said.

Portman, a former budget director and trade representative for President George W. Bush, was considering a presidential run himself back when the Republican National Committee announced Cleveland had been selected. He’s no stranger to presidential politics, having been a finalist to run as Mitt Romney’s vice president in 2012. He also has been the party’s go-to man for debate preparation, standing in for Obama in sparring matches with Romney and Arizona Senator John McCain.

Democratic Opening

Democrats sense an opportunity.

"If they had to pick a state where they would not like to do this, it’s Ohio," said David Bergstein, spokesman for Ted Strickland, Portman’s Democratic challenger. "There’s no hiding from this show."

Regardless of what happens, Bergstein said Strickland’s campaign will try to hold Portman accountable, especially given he’s repeatedly said he intends to support the party’s nominee.

"It is a fantasy strategy to imagine that the sitting incumbent senator will be able to somehow hide from a national convention that is sure to have a bunch of incendiary story lines in his home state," Bergstein said.

But Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said he doesn’t expect anything that may happen at the convention to affect Portman. Just as Democrats overcame their divisions in 2008 to re-elect Barack Obama and carry House and Senate candidates into office, Republicans will do the same in 2016, he predicted.

"We’re going to romp, but we just need to get settled on the nominee," Borges said.

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