GOP Senators Fighting For Reelection Keep Their Distance from Trump

From Rob Portman to Marco Rubio to John McCain, vulnerable Republican incumbents made sure to stay away from center stage in Cleveland.


CLEVELAND — On the day that the GOP officially nominated Donald Trump for president, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman was in a small kayak, using a stars-and-striped paddle to navigate a river best known for once having been so polluted it caught fire.

Portman raced — and lost to — retired Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Major, who climbed out of his kayak on legs that had been amputated above the knee after an IED explosion in Iraq in 2006. The race was part of a charity event for Team River Runners that took place a mile upriver from a convention so far marred by a plagiarism scandal; headliners who mostly come from Trump’s own family; obscure speakers who in one case literally compared Hillary Clinton to the devil; and a prominent Trump supporter who said Clinton should be executed for treason, attracting the attention of the Secret Service.

Portman, locked in a tight reelection race with Democrat Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor, wasn’t the only prominent GOP senator to skip the Cleveland convention hall that day. Other notable absences include Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, who won’t be in Ohio at all and are instead campaigning hundreds of miles away back home. After Rubio initially said he had no plans to attend or participate, the convention announced he would speak via videoconference Wednesday night.

The three Republicans are among the party’s best-known leaders on foreign policy, with Portman serving as George W. Bush’s trade representative, Rubio embodying the party establishment’s traditional views on expansive defense spending and aggressive U.S. military interventions abroad, and McCain’s standing as the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam.

They also share a unique challenge in 2016, fighting for reelection in three of the most contested battleground states in the country with Trump — who has no experience in national security or elected office — now at the top of the ticket. While all three have said they’ll support the nominee, they’ve avoided a full-throated endorsement of Trump himself, expressing concern over his on-again-off-again Muslim ban, threat to pull the United States out of NATO, and friendliness toward Russia, among other shifting statements.

“I’m not keeping my distance,” Portman told Foreign Policy Tuesday after getting off the water. “I’ve endorsed him.”

Portman praised Trump’s pledges to “rebuild the military,” saying that it was important for the U.S. to have more capacity to send military forces abroad at a time when China is building islands in the South China Sea and Ukraine is defending itself against Russian incursions.

Still, it was clear that the two men have their differences. Portman has been heavily involved in pushing the Obama administration for more assistance to Ukraine, including offensive weaponry, and has made several trips there. He said he was alarmed that the new GOP platform — using language crafted by Trump aides — stripped out calls to provide arms to Ukraine and replaced it with more anodyne talk of providing “appropriate assistance.” The changes pushed by the Trump campaign were widely seen as an attempt to make Republican policy less chilly toward Russia, given the nominee’s warm words about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

“I’m concerned about that — I think we need to stand up for Ukraine,” Portman said. “They’ve made their decision to be with the West, to be with us, to be with the EU, to seek freedom and liberty. As we hold ourselves not just as the world’s longest standing democracy, but one that promotes freedom around the world, we need to stand with our friends.”

Portman, a former trade representative, is also light years away from Trump on that contentious issue. Portman has supported fast-track trade authority for President Obama, regional free-trade pacts like the one with Central America and, of course, NAFTA, though two-thirds of Trump supporters are against free trade deals. While initially voicing support for the goals of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s signature trade deal in Asia, Portman ultimately came out against it. 

Republicans as a whole used to be free traders. But in many ways, Trump has succeeded in remaking the Republican Party platform in the image of his “America First,” neo-isolationist, anti-trade foreign policy.

In an interview before the convention, Rubio told FP that he expected the platform would be “pretty much in line with what the Republican Party has stood for on those issues in the past,” including being “committed to our alliances in NATO and in Asia,” a direct swipe at Trump’s heterodox positions.

Instead, the platform drafted with the assistance of Trump’s aides and formally adopted Monday was out of the traditional GOP line, demanding that NATO allies increase spending, and saying the U.S. must “reserve the right to go its own way”; dropping any talk of an independent Palestine, rejecting decades of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy; removing the initial language about offering military support to Ukraine in its continued conflict with Russia, seeming to extend an olive branch to Putin; and outright rejecting existing international trade deals.

Some of those changes have likely been tough for centrist Republicans like Portman to swallow, perhaps explaining why the senator has given the impression he was intentionally distancing his campaign from Trump’s by describing his schedule this week as his own shadow convention.

A Portman aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking, told FP that the lawmaker had a very different “brand” than Trump.

“That has given Rob the freedom to endorse Trump … while — at the same time — dismiss or disagree with off-the-wall remarks (exhibit A: the Manafort comments, or the Muslim ban),” the aide wrote in an email. “We believe he can get the benefits of supporting Trump throughout Ohio without the baggage,” the aide finished.

It’s not clear he’s avoided the baggage, or that it will be enough to help Portman stave off Strickland, who has worked to turn Trump into an albatross around Portman’s neck, forcing him to defend the nominee’s controversial positions on national security and immigration.

On Monday, the Strickland campaign unveiled a large banner downtown near the convention hall reading, “If Rob Portman Can’t Stand Up to Donald Trump, Portman Won’t Stand Up for Ohio,” and on Tuesday, it rolled out a veteran surrogate to answer the senator’s kayaking event.

“There’s no river Senator Portman can hide in to avoid his unfortunate reality: Portman is all in for Trump,” veteran and Cleveland City Councilman Terrell Pruitt said. “He’s continuing to support Donald Trump — the most toxic and divisive nominee in modern history, who has disparaged America’s war heroes and is unfit to lead our country.”

Portman’s race is one of the most competitive in the country, with a Real Clear Politics polling average showing him up 2.7 percentage points on Strickland as of Wednesday.

Despite his avowed support for Trump, several of Portman’s public events outside the convention itself were with the Ohio delegation, which has been intentionally snubbed by event organizers in apparent retaliation for the senator’s at-times tepid support and the outright rejection of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Trump rival in the Republican primary.

Normally front and center at both conventions due to the importance of the state, organizers literally sidelined Ohio, putting it stage left between Pennsylvania and the Northern Mariana Islands. Additionally, although both Kasich and Portman played a significant role in bringing the four-day primetime event to Cleveland, neither sought a speaking slot nor was asked by team Trump to appear publicly on his behalf.

That was probably a wise choice given the kind of words Kasich, in particular, has used to describe Trump. On Tuesday afternoon in an event blocks away from the conventional hall, Kasich gave an obvious repudiation of the soon-to-be nominee.

“So we see in the world a growing nationalism, a growing isolationism, anti-immigration, and anti-trade — if you put that all together, what does that stew look like?” Kasich said.

It looks, of course, just like Donald Trump, now the standard-bearer for the party of Kasich and Portman — and Lincoln.

This story has been updated.

Photo credit: The Washington Post / Contributor

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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