Rob Portman For President?

Rob Portman

With the midterm elections over and 2015 around the corner, the time for people who are thinking about running for President in 2016 has begun, and one name that seems to be entering the conversation is Ohio Senator Rob Portman:

Rob Portman is mapping out a possible presidential run, creating a narrative, talking to fundraisers and looking to change his image from the senator who once ran George W. Bush’s budget office to the anti-Obama from Ohio with a serious resume.

“I probably have more experience than other people who are running or thinking about running,” he said. The first-term senator and policy wonk could run as a sort of anti-Obama — a swing state pragmatist with a loaded resume.

Portman certainly wouldn’t run as an outsider. He embraces his previous White House experience having worked for both Bush administrations. He went so far as to point out his executive branch background is both foreign and domestic.

He traveled overseas as counsel to the 41st president and later served as the U.S. Trade Representative under the 43rd. He worked in the legislative affairs office of the elder George Bush and was budget director for his son, developing relationships on Capitol Hill that span decades. His experience could also make a bid difficult in a GOP primary. Portman ran the White House budget office in t years when tax cuts and war spending spun up government spending and added to growing deficits.

But his time in Washington is certainly a not-so-subtle counterpoint to that of President Obama, who clocked just two years, a month and six days in Washington before announcing his intention to run it — and the country.

Following President Obama’s “flash,” as some Portman confidants describe it, the Ohioan would be the prototype of substance and competence. Next to hostility — witness New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shouting “sit down and shut up” to a heckler just before Election Day — Portman offers civility.

Like many of the people who are likely to flirt with the idea of running for President, though, Portman would face the same problem other candidates face, namely the fact that as qualified as he might seem on paper a lot of people don’t know who he is:

Purveyors of conventional wisdom in Washington don’t dispute his qualifications or likability, but they dismiss the 58-year-old Midwestern lawyer as not electrifying enough to galvanize voters across the country. Supporters say he could be a foil to Obama. But they have also worked to alter the “boring” perception by sending Portman out to kayak and bike-ride in some of his recent media interviews. (He agreed to lunch on the lip-smacking ribs with this CNN reporter.)

Perceptions can be a problem, but voters have to know you exist. Portman acknowledges that gaining attention would be his first obstacle.

“I’d be an asterisk in the polls,” he said, adding that the national primary debates are his only chance to prove himself. Debates could be key for Portman. He was considered a top-notch stand-in twice for President Obama, as well as John Kerry and Al Gore in debate prep during the last four presidential elections.

Portman says he has a national network of donors that could keep his campaign afloat until debate season arrives. The downside is the Republican National Committee has already pledged to limit the number of sanctioned debates.

It wasn’t lost on Portman’s boosters that one of his contemporaries at the Republican Governors Association, Chris Christie, took a victory lap the morning after the election by appearing on all five of the network morning shows to claim credit for a Republican romp of statehouses coast-to-coast.

Portman, too, has connections nationwide. Wearing one of Cincinnati’s infamous Montgomery Inn bibs in front of a plate of pork, poultry and Saratoga chips, the senator said he’s sent the restaurant’s ribs all over the country. He’s also sent cartons of the Oprah-approved Cincinnati Graeter’s ice cream around the United States, most recently to Maine, for the enjoyment of the greater Bush family.

Those connections come not only from his White House service or his vetting two years ago as a potential running mate to Mitt Romney, but from his recent vice chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He was charged with fundraising for the competitive Senate races, but had a heavy hand in recruiting and counseling the top candidates who shocked the political world by swamping Democrats early this month.

As noted, Portman has been mentioned as a Vice-Presidential running mate in the past, most prominently in 2012 but also, albeit briefly, in 2008 and he has served as the stand-in for President Obama during debate practice for both John McCain and Mitt Romney, and his time in the White House, and the Senate, has certainly added to his resume. He also happens to be one of the handful of Republican Senators who has endorsed same-sex marriage, which in and of itself would make his presence in the 2016 field interesting regardless of how things play out at the Supreme Court between now and then. At the same time, it’s hard to judge what kind of candidate he’d be since, even as a Senator, he’s not been out of the more out-front members of that body in the way that, say, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz have been. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does mean that, at least initially, he’d have a hard time breaking through the “Who is that guy?” questions that most potential voters will have about him. All of that being said, Portman could potentially be an interesting candidate, and the fact that he is from a must-win state is certain to raise interest in his potential candidacy in some quarters.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    The support for same sex marriage with kill Portman with social conservatives.

  2. C. Clavin says:


  3. gVOR08 says:

    Portman is my Senator, and was my Representative. He’s so colorless I barely know he exists.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Doug, you need to check your link because I see a picture frame up there but I can’t make out anything within the frame. Is it supposed to be a photo of someone?

  5. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    Ditto what michael said.
    It is a photo of a nobody.

  6. Kylopod says:

    Count me as someone who’s still skeptical that anyone openly pro-SSM could capture the Republican nomination in 2016. (I also will not be at all shocked if Portman attempts to temper or at least downplay his views on this issue.) I realize many Republican elites would like this issue to just go away, and I also doubt an outright anti-SSM warrior like Huck or Santorum is likely to capture the nomination either. Still, I think the socons have considerable influence over the party. They may not get to choose the candidate, but I believe they have some veto power over candidates who seem too far out of line (like McCain when he described Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance”). I suspect Portman will be soon relegated to the fringes similar to what happened with Jon Huntsman last time around. I could be very wrong about this. We’ll see.

  7. Just "nutha... says:

    What I can’t see here is the electability of yet another basically thin resume candidate after the last two thin resume candidates–shrub and the current occupant. What’s the logic in his thinking here?

  8. Blue Galangal says:

    @gVOR08: I must be in the same neck of the woods as you, roughly speaking. His Facebook page is interesting: he got a lot of flack but also a lot of support for the SSM issue. He also gets a lot of flack on veteran’s issues. Gets called a RINO a whole lot. I don’t see him getting the nomination. (As goes Warren County, so goes the Republican caucus, or words to that effect.)

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Blue Galangal: Close. I work in OH-1 and live in OH-2. For the rest of the audience, Ohio’s first congressional district is a small chunk of the SW corner, basically Cincinnati and suburbs. Generally Republican. The second is the eastern parts of Cincinnati and several low population counties in Appalachia. Hugely Republican, Tea Party congress dweeb and everything. I’m looking out my office window across the river at the snow on the bluff below CVG (Greater Cincinnati airport, which is in KY.)

  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @gVOR08: And yet he’s still better than Jean Schmidt. But it’s hard to be worse. I live and work in OH-1 now (after redistricting).