- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

AKRON, Ohio — Al Fillingim, a retired Teamsters truck driver, says he plans to cast his vote in next week’s election for Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and says other members of the local union are poised to do the same.

From the outside looking in, Mr. Fillingim’s decision to split the ticket seems odd given Democrats’ strong historical ties to labor unions. But the way Mr. Fillingim and others who attended a retirees’ meeting here Wednesday see it, Mr. Portman and Mrs. Clinton are the best choices available to them in their respective races.

Ironically, Mr. Fillingim sounds like he has more confidence in Mr. Portman, who has fought to protect the underfunded pensions of 48,000 union members in Ohio, than he does in Mrs. Clinton, a candidate he sees as the “lesser of two evils” compared to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Heading into this year, Mr. Portman was one of Democrats’ top targets, and the party recruited a former state governor, Ted Strickland, to run against him. But voters like Mr. Fillingim have turned the race into a rout.

Mr. Portman now holds a substantial lead in the polls, and national Democrats long ago pulled money from the race, essentially conceding defeat.

Mr. Portman also seems to have figured out how to handle the presence of Mr. Trump at the top of the ballot — something fellow Republican senators in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and North Carolina have struggled to do.

The senator said Wednesday that Mr. Trump has a “very good shot” of winning Ohio, and dodged a question about how he has been able to distance himself from Mr. Trump, instead praising the army of volunteers who have knocked on more than 5 million doors and touting the “strong record we have for Ohio families and Ohio workers.”

Corry Bliss, Mr. Portman’s campaign manager, said the key to their success was making Mr. Strickland a liability.

“We defined Strickland and attacked him the second he announced, and we never let up,” Mr. Bliss said.

The pitfalls of a fallout with Mr. Trump were there — particularly since the billionaire businessman has built his campaign on opposition to free trade deals. Mr. Portman voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the normalization of relations with China as a member of the House, and later served as the country’s top trade official in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Making things even more difficult for Mr. Portman was the state’s governor, John Kasich, who lost the GOP presidential primary to Mr. Trump and then refused to support the party’s candidate.

For his part, Mr. Portman had intended to support the “Republican nominee,” but reversed course after a 2005 videotape surfaced in which Mr. Trump brags about groping women. He now plans to write in Mr. Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, on Election Day.

Mr. Trump currently holds a 3.3 percent lead over Mrs. Clinton in Ohio, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, which also shows Mr. Portman leading Mr. Strickland by a whopping 14.5 percentage points.

This is not the way Democrats envisioned the race panning out last year when Mr. Strickland entered the contest as a rock star recruit.

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Strickland campaign, dismissed the idea that the race is over, saying Democrats are more united than Republicans, who are fractured over Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

“It will all come down to turnout — and different elements of a potential Republican coalition are alternatively furious at Sen. Portman or turned off by Donald Trump — while Ohio Democrats are more energized than ever before and have the largest, strongest ground game in the state with hundreds of organizers and volunteers working to elect Ted, Secretary Clinton and Democrats at every level,” Mr. Bergstein said.

He also said deep-pocketed allies funneled tens of millions of dollars into the race to help Mr. Portman.

Ms. Bliss said Mr. Strickland has struggled in the race because his record of public service pales in comparison to that of Mr. Portman.

He said people are responding to the effort Mr. Portman has put into, among other things, combating opioid overdose deaths from prescription drugs and heroin, and ensuring current and former Teamster retirees have a say in proposed changes to their pension fund, which is projected to become insolvent in 2025.

Mr. Portman was rewarded for his efforts in July when the Ohio Conference of Teamsters endorsed Mr. Portman over Mr. Strickland, even as the national union endorsed Mrs. Clinton.

The United Mine Workers also backed Mr. Portman in Ohio, while its national arm has stayed out of the presidential race.

Mr. Fillingim and others praised Mr. Portman during his stop here at the Local 24 Teamsters Hall.

“Portman actually stepped up,” Mr. Fillingim said. “They were going to cut our pensions, and he got it stopped. So if they help us out, we have to help them back.”

Mike Walden, chairman of the Northeast Ohio Committee to Protect Pensions, said Mr. Portman has been a champion for their efforts.

“I am a registered Democrat, and I am done with this Democrat, Republican stuff,” Mr. Walden said. “I am working with who is going to work with me and who is for us.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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