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Donald Trump's Run Isn't Dampening Ohio Republican Senate Race

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats had hoped Donald Trump's candidacy would make it easier for them to unseat the Republican senator from Ohio Rob Portman. But Portman has quietly managed to carve his own path separate from Trump. And as Nick Castele from WCPN Ideastream reports, the GOP hopes a Portman victory will help them hold the Senate.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: Senator Rob Portman is Donald Trump's opposite in many ways. He rarely raises his voice and spent years in Washington, D.C., promoting free trade deals. When Ohio hosted the Republican National Convention this summer, Portman kept his distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

CASTELE: He helped Habitat for Humanity in a Cleveland neighborhood and kayaked with veterans. Wherever Portman went, though, questions about Trump followed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Were you invited to speak at the convention?

ROB PORTMAN: I told him I was doing my own thing, you know. So we're just really busy not just doing Habitat but as you know, we're also bringing a lot of our volunteers in and making this a volunteer appreciation event.

CASTELE: Democrats had hoped to tie Portman to Trump's every word. But when Trump attacked a federal judge's Mexican heritage, Portman called it wrong. Portman says Trump should be harder on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, Portman supports Trump for president. And his Democratic opponent, former Governor Ted Strickland, criticizes him for it every chance he gets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED STRICKLAND: And why is Rob Portman doing that? Because he's putting his own political well-being and his own party above what's best for the United States of America, and he ought to be ashamed of himself.

CASTELE: This was supposed to be a tight race. Strickland and Portman both have years of experience in Ohio politics. But with less than a month before early voting starts, polls show Portman with a comfortable lead. What happened?

DAVID NIVEN: In his campaign, you know, he's been offering this message that makes him out to be something of the everyman, you know. His campaign ads are not ideological.

CASTELE: David Niven is a University of Cincinnati professor and a former speechwriter for Strickland. Though Portman may be a conservative Republican, Niven says he's focusing on non-partisan themes such as fighting opiate addiction. Plus, he's had no trouble getting his message on the air.

NIVEN: Portman himself and his allies have poured an enormous amount of money into this campaign.

CASTELE: Democrats criticized Portman's past support for trade deals, which are unpopular in Ohio. As a Congressman, Portman voted for NAFTA. He later served as trade representative for President George W. Bush when the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed. But a decade later, the Republican senator says he's against the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Congress is considering.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PORTMAN: I want to be sure the agreement's good for Ohio workers and Ohio families. And I made clear at the beginning of the negotiations what needed to be in there in order for it to be good for the people I represent in Ohio.

CASTELE: Meanwhile, Portman and supporters have attacked Strickland's record as governor of Ohio. He served one term before losing to John Kasich in 2010. That criticism has stuck, and Strickland has had to spend money defending himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "RAINY DAY")

STRICKLAND: Rob Portman and his wealthy friends have spent millions attacking me. They say I lost jobs and drained the rainy day fund. Well, friends, I was governor during the great national recession. And we all know it was raining pretty hard.

CASTELE: Democrats have another chance to try to turn the tide before Election Day. There is a trio of debates scheduled for October. But with the presidential race far tighter than this Senate contest, Portman seems to have separated his fate from Trump's in Ohio.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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