- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - U.S. Sen. Rob Portman filed for re-election on Tuesday in what is already shaping up as one of the toughest fights of 2016.

His campaign says the Cincinnati Republican submitted the maximum 3,000 signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State in order to be placed on next year’s ballot. Portman gathered names in all 88 Ohio counties as he seeks to send a message he’s got statewide support and can win.

“My strategy will be based on the record we have, which I’m very proud of,” he said in a telephone interview. “It would be hard to find a senator who has more accomplishments than we do. I think we have more than two dozen bills signed into law by the president, and then we have an aggressive agenda going forward. We have at least another hundred bipartisan bills I’ve introduced that I want to get passed.”

Even before it is official, the contest is among the most expensive and closely watched in the country.

Former Gov. Ted Strickland is Portman’s likely opponent. The Democrat has a rare primary endorsement from the state party, relatively high name recognition across Ohio and is enough of a threat that he already has been targeted in more than $2 million in outside advertising.

Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Jenny Donohue said spending on Portman’s behalf by such groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity shows that he has supported their agendas.

“Whether it’s cutting Medicare, slashing Pell grants or shipping Ohio jobs overseas, Sen. Portman has spent 25 years putting Washington special interests ahead of Ohio, while Ted Strickland has fought for Ohio students, workers and families,” she said.

Portman and Strickland are both viewed as moderate in many respects, with Portman breaking with fellow Republicans to support gay marriage and Strickland aligning with Republicans who support gun rights.

Portman says Ohio campaigns are largely about roughly the middle third of voters who are independent, and he looks to his strong showing in 2010 in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County as evidence of his staying power. Strickland lost a re-election bid for governor in that year to Republican John Kasich, now a presidential contender.

Both parties are working hard to attract the black vote in Ohio’s critical urban precincts. Portman is working with an advisory panel of top black leaders of various party affiliations that he created earlier this year, an effort that Strickland said he himself did not need because blacks and women are an integral part of his team.

Portman said it’s “totally unacceptable” that Republican presidential contenders get less than 10 percent of the black vote.

“That makes no sense,” he said. “There’s so many issues where we agree.” He named GOP efforts to tackle drug abuse, improve re-entry programs, support small businesses and enhance job training.

Strickland faces a primary challenge in March from Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who has positioned himself as the only candidate in the race who would fight for tough restrictions on guns.

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