Columbus — Incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic challenger Ted Strickland sought to further distance themselves from each other Oct. 17, painting pictures of their own plans for the U.S. Senate and tying their opponent to the candidates at the top of the ticket.
During an hour-long debate at a Columbus TV station, Portman called himself an “independent voice for Ohio” with a positive agenda, passing numerous bills in Washington, including law changes to address the state’s heroin epidemic and combat human trafficking.
On his opponent, Portman offered, “You’ll hear a lot of partisan false attacks. He doesn’t want to talk about his record. He doesn’t want to talk about his vision because he doesn’t have a positive one.”
Strickland recounted his humble beginnings in Appalachian Ohio and how that affected his subsequent years of public service.
“I learned at an early age what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and how just one bad break could cause real hardship,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve spent my life as a minister, a teacher, a psychologist, a congressman and as your governor fighting for working people. And that’s who I’ll fight for in the Senate.”
Strickland said his opponent’s background was “a story of wealth, power and privilege. It’s a story about a man who says one thing in Ohio and goes to Washington and does something else… Like Donald Trump, Rob Portman wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade. He’s voted to defund Planned Parenthood. He’s pushed legislation to allow a boss to tell a female employee that she should not have access to birth control.”
The matchup was the second of three planned debates; Portman and Strickland were scheduled to meet a last time Oct. 27 in Cleveland.
Outside the Oct. 17 venue, Portman supporters and signs outnumbered those of Strickland. A few backers of Green Party Senate candidate Joseph DeMare also were on hand, pushing for his inclusion in the debates.
Inside, Portman and Strickland battled over minimum wage, gun control and immigration, among other issues. There were claims by one, counterclaims by the other, and flurries of emails and postings on social media from both campaigns proving or disproving position statements and other comments.
“He’s said some things here this evening that are just blatantly not true…,” Strickland said toward the end of the evening.
“He’s said a number of things tonight that are just not true…,” Portman responded.
The debate kicked off with questions about Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Strickland has pressed Portman on Trump throughout the campaign, continuing after Portman shifted his support away from the billionaire businessman and to his running mate, Mike Pence, after recordings surfaced of Trump saying lewd things about women.
“I think he chose party over country,” Strickland said of Portman. “… It wasn’t until the last hour, as he was ahead in the polls, that he summoned the courage to say, ‘I cannot vote for him….’”
He added, “For a year and a half, Sen. Portman said that he disagreed with certain things that Donald Trump said, but it wasn’t until he made a political calculation at nearly the last minute that he actually withdrew his support from Donald Trump.”
Portman said he did stand up and speak out when he disagreed with Trump in the past but supported his candidacy initially out of respect for Republican voters’ choice as the nominee.
“I’m a Republican,” he said. “I made an extraordinary decision not to support my party’s nominee because I found his words that came out about a week or so ago to be so offensive and so wrong… They were demeaning and degrading to women. To me that was the final straw… I respect voters who take a different position on this.”
Strickland, for his part, was pressed on Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables” and for other comments that have some to light through emails and documents.
Strickland said Clinton has acknowledged mistakes, and he said she is the only presidential candidate who is qualified for the position.
“I know her well,” he said. “I’ve known her for a long time. I know she cares about children and families… I know the work she did as First Lady to try to get this country to have a comprehensive health care system. And I believe she is an honest person.”
He added, “I don’t believe there’s any evidence that she’s actually lied to the American people.”
Portman countered that Strickland should have stood up against Clinton for calling Trump supporters irredeemable and racist.
“That’s about a million Ohio voters or so,” he said. “He said nothing. To this day, he refuses to condemn those results.”
He added, “Words do matter….”
Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.