- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2010

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.”

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