- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2016

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Republican presidential contest has drowned out the rest of politics — including the race in Florida to replace Sen. Marco Rubio — leaving the crowded field of candidates struggling to break through.

In Ohio, which, like Florida, holds its presidential primary Tuesday, Sen. Rob Portman is trying to maintain his support for Gov. John Kasich, one of the Republican presidential candidates, without ticking off supporters of the insurgent Donald Trump.

All five of the states that hold primary votes Tuesday have what could turn out to be competitive Senate races, with Republicans holding each of those seats amid an increasingly tricky political year for the Republican Party.

Democrats are in a better position with their presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders taking a more civil approach to each other. But even they face divisions in their Senate races, such as the fight in Florida between two congressmen, Rep. Patrick Murphy and Rep. Alan Grayson, who mimic the establishment-insurgent split of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders.

The first order of business as the candidates fight it out is to get voters to notice them.

“What we’ve seen in both Senate primaries, the candidates are having a hard time getting noticed by the general public,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “For most of the candidates — really, all of the candidates but one — most voters don’t really know them.”

The exception is Mr. Grayson, whose name recognition, at about 50 percent, is twice as high as the others in the field. Yet even that is a double-edged sword, with the liberal lightning rod earning more disapproval than approval from voters.

Mr. Grayson has tied himself closely to Mr. Sanders, including revoking his endorsement of Mrs. Clinton to throw his support to the insurgent senator last month. Mr. Grayson also supports a plan for fully socialized medicine and assails his own opponent, Mr. Murphy, as an “errand boy” for Wall Street.

In Florida, the Republican field is crowded, with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and two congressman, Reps. David W. Jolly and Ron DeSantis, leading the pack. Each of those three is from a different region, with Mr. Lopez-Cantera from the south, Mr. Jolly from the Tampa area and Mr. DeSantis representing the Jacksonville region in Congress.

“What we have is a very crowded field representing most of the major media markets, and each of the individual candidates have their own media market in their backyard. And they’re flying under this enormous presidential umbrella that, in addition to the fact it’s already so diffuse, they can’t get any attention at all for somebody to break out of the pack,” said Adam Putnam, the state’s agriculture commissioner. “It would be incredibly frustrating to be running one of those campaigns, ultimately spending millions of dollars and still having people say, ‘Who are you?’”

Mr. Jewett said the divisions hark back to the political order when Democrats controlled politics and the key fights were among regional power bases.

He said Mr. DeSantis has positioned himself in the tea party mold of candidate while Mr. Jolly, who endorsed former Gov. Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential campaign, is lining up as more moderate. Mr. Lopez-Cantera has yet to make clear where his leanings will be.

Mr. Rubio, at a campaign rally this year, appeared to throw his support to Mr. Lopez-Cantera, telling supporters that if they cooperated, the lieutenant governor “can be the next senator from Florida.”

Florida doesn’t hold its Senate primary until August, giving the candidates a chance to break through.

In Ohio, the sides are already drawn, with Mr. Portman, a first-term senator, likely to face former Gov. Ted Strickland.

Polling shows that race a dead heat, as Mr. Portman tries to solidify a divided Republican Party base.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Portman told reporters at a campaign event last week, “we need to bring our party together in a unified way to be able to defeat Hillary Clinton, who is going to be their nominee and begin to turn the country around. We can’t afford to have divisions in our party.”

The stakes of the race are underscored by Mr. Portman’s hiring of Corry Bliss to run his campaign. Mr. Bliss is known for his aggressive style and helped Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas win re-election in 2014 after joining the campaign late.

“In terms of the Senate race, there is not a presidential candidate in the world that can get Ted Strickland elected to the United States Senate,” Mr. Bliss said.

Mr. Portman is one of several Republican incumbents who face tough battles. Three other states that host primaries Tuesday have the same situation: Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina; Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois; and Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri.

None of those three, however, has endorsed a candidate in the Republican presidential race, leaving them less attached to the field for now.

The bigger danger is that they end up with a nominee who hurts Republican turnout in November, analysts said.

Portman could run the perfect race, and he has plenty of ammunition to use against his likely opponent, Ted Strickland. But if the GOP presidential nominee is losing Ohio by several points or more, none of that might matter,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.


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