New York Times
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
February 19, 2016
Senator Rob Portman, a mild-mannered Republican seeking re-election in the era of Donald J. Trump, has long pitched himself as a voice of reason in Washington. He points to his ability to work with Democrats, and even crossed party lines in voting to confirm Loretta E. Lynch as President Obama’s attorney general.
Now the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has him in a bind. Like other endangered Republicans in swing states — including Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin — Mr. Portman, who is from Ohio, has vowed to block Senate consideration of any nominee to fill Justice Scalia’s seat.
It is a stance that has put Mr. Portman, 60, whose earnest demeanor sometimes earns him plaudits even from Democrats here, in the kind of ideological showdown he usually tries to avoid. Many Democrats, Ohio newspaper editorialists and independents are outraged. But his conservative Republican base is pressing him to stand firm.
“Please, have a backbone like steel,” Helen Hiestand, 72, who years ago worked for Mr. Portman, urged the other night, as he greeted fellow Republicans in a church gymnasium here. The senator, with characteristic understatement, replied: “I’m getting guff.”
In lining up behind the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who insists that the next president should pick Justice Scalia’s successor, Mr. Portman says voters deserve a chance to weigh in. He says it is “common practice” for the Senate not to consider lifetime appointments in the last year of a president’s term; Democrats disagree.
“We’re in the last eight and a half months before a major election,” Mr. Portman said Wednesday in an interview. “We have candidates out there on both sides making their case for the direction of the country, and this seat is a critical seat.”
Justice Scalia’s death leaves the court evenly divided; his replacement could shape its decisions for a generation or more. But while Republicans have effectively told Mr. Obama not to bother sending the Senate a nominee, in interviews, many Ohio voters seemed to disagree.
And Democrats are pouncing.
“I think Senator Portman will pay a heavy price for his irresponsible behavior,” the senator’s likely Democratic opponent, Ted Strickland, a former Ohio governor, said in an interview. “I think it’s a violation of his constitutional duty.”
Some wonder why the independent-minded Mr. Portman was so quick to fall in line behind the Republican leader. “I don’t know why he just didn’t shut up,” said Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist here.
Around the country, other first-term Republicans are also feeling the heat. In New Hampshire and Wisconsin, newspaper editorial boards had harsh words for Ms. Ayotte and Mr. Johnson; in Pennsylvania, a news article in Mr. Toomey’s home paper suggested he was misstating the facts around past nominations in election years.
In Ohio, Mr. Portman is clearly weighing a complex calculation. He is a former House member who served as trade representative and budget director under President George W. Bush, and his efforts at bipartisanship help him at home. But he is seeking a second term amid a raucous Republican presidential primary campaign; a nominee like Mr. Trump, or Senator Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan, could hurt him badly in Ohio, whose voters twice backed Mr. Obama. He must court independents, yet still satisfy his conservative base.
“This is a hard one, and Portman’s not the only one with a problem,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He’s keeping his base intact, but it could create a larger problem for him in the general election by alienating some moderates and independents.”
Here in Hillsboro, a city of about 6,600 people surrounded by snow-blanketed farmland east of Cincinnati, his mandate from the base seems clear. Nearly 200 enthusiastic conservatives, many wearing red, white and blue, turned out for Mr. Portman at the Highland County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner.
The presidential campaign was on everyone’s mind; attendees voted in a straw poll by dropping corn kernels in Mason jars with photos of the candidates. (Senator Marco Rubio of Florida won, with 44 kernels, followed by Mr. Trump and John R. Kasich, the Ohio governor, who tied with 36 each.) But the court was on everyone’s mind, too.
“The Constitution says he should, and he should,” said Kay Ayres, 78, a retired cattle farmer and the county party’s executive chairwoman, when asked if Mr. Obama would be right to nominate someone. “The Constitution doesn’t say that the Senate has to hurry on and get it done.”
But two hours away in the small Ohio city of Delaware, sentiments were more muddled. Delaware, birthplace of the nation’s 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes, is heavily Republican though not Portman territory; many voters said they had not heard of the senator. As for the court, some saw no reason to delay. And some were just disgusted with Washington.
“It’s not like this is Obama’s last day; this is just political,” said Genti Koci, an Albanian-American, who admired Justice Scalia and likes Mr. Kasich for president, but voted for Mr. Obama in 2012. “I don’t see any good reason to wait another year, when we’re not even sure who’s going to win.”
Nationally, polls show that the country is evenly divided, with Democrats supporting confirmation this year, and Republicans preferring to wait. Republican and Democratic strategists say it is too soon to tell whether the fight over Justice Scalia’s replacement will change the outcome of Senate races, but it will certainly energize each party’s base.
For Mr. Portman, a Supreme Court hearing could be particularly problematic. He was among a handful of Senate Republicans — including Ms. Ayotte and Mr. Johnson — who voted to confirm Attorney General Lynch, who is said to be on Mr. Obama’s short list for the Supreme Court. She would make history as the first black female nominee, and it could be deeply uncomfortable for swing-state Republicans to vote against her.
So while Mr. Strickland, the former governor, faces a primary challenge, he is hammering away at Mr. Portman’s stance on replacing Justice Scalia. “You’d better believe I’m talking about this,” he said .
Mr. Portman is trying not to take the bait. In Hillsboro, he emphasized other issues, among them jobs, the threat from the Islamic State and Ohio’s heroin epidemic, never once mentioning the justice’s death.
Reminded that Democrats say he is playing politics with the court, Mr. Portman bristled, insisting no one knows how the presidential election will turn out.
“I think it’s best for the country,” he said. “Let the politics fall where they might.”
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