Rob Portman, Ted Strickland trade accusations in lively Senate-race debate


YOUNGSTOWN—Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman described himself as “an independent voice” for Ohio and said his Democratic rival would be a “total rubber stamp” for Hillary Clinton if the Democratic presidential nominee wins the White House.

Ex-Gov. Ted Strickland accused Portman of expecting others to “carry his water” on tough issues and said the senator showed “cowardice” in withdrawing his support for Donald Trump only after the GOP presidential nominee became so toxic that other Republicans were dumping him in droves.

Ohio’s first Senate debate on Friday was a lively, sharp-elbowed showdown, with the two candidates tangling fiercely over free trade, the minimum wage, and who has cost Ohioans more jobs.

Portman opened the debate by touting his efforts to curb the heroin epidemic and stop human trafficking—two issues that have broad bipartisan support in Washington.

“What I have done in Congress is work across the aisle … to get things done,” Portman said, calling himself a “common-sense conservative.”

Strickland noted the GOP incumbent has towed a partisan line on a number of hot-button issues—including refusing to allow a vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. The Democratic challenger highlighted his modest upbringing–reminding the Youngstown audience that his father was a steelworker and that he was the first in his family to finish college.

By contrast, he said, Portman’s life story has been one of “wealth, power and privilege.”

Friday’s one-hour debate was sponsored by The Vindicator and WFMJ-TV. It was the first of three such exchanges between the two main candidates in Ohio’s Senate race.

The questions on Friday came from four Youngstown journalists, as well as local voters who submitted queries to WFMJ.

Trade tangle

With Youngstown as the backdrop for this first session, it’s no surprise that trade was front-and-center.

Strickland reminded listeners that Portman strongly backed the NAFTA and CAFTA agreements and said the senator should “get down on his knees and apologize” to Mahoning Valley workers for sending their jobs to Mexico and China.

Portman defended his record on trade, saying he had worked hard to level the playing field for American workers and companies hurt by illegal dumping and other unfair trade practices. He touted legislation he has worked on with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to make it easier for companies to seek remedies when foreign competitors sell products at below market prices or get illegal subsidies.

Portman conceded “the record on NAFTA has been mixed,” causing some job losses and some job gains. But he said Strickland’s anti-trade position would cause job losses for Ohio’s exporters.

“Ted Strickland has to answer to those who will lose” out if trade is shut down, said Portman. “That’s his record.”

Strickland and the 2008 economic crisis 

Portman’s harshest line of attack came over Strickland’s record as governor. As he has throughout the campaign, Portman noted that Ohio lost 350,000 jobs on the one-time governor’s watch and said he drained the state’s rainy day fund.

“He left John Kasich an $8 billion deficit and rainy day fund of 89 cents,” Portman said.

Strickland pointed out that he was governor during a national recession that hit every state hard, but pummeled Ohio in particular because of its large manufacturing base. He said the recession was caused by “Wall Street and Washington,” noting that Portman served as the Bush administration’s budget director before the economic meltdown.

“We took a big hit in the recession,” Strickland said. “Everyone knows that I didn’t cause that and I worked hard to keep our state in a stable position.”

The Trump factor

With allegations of Trump’s groping women without consent still dominating the presidential race, Portman was asked why he waited until Saturday to yank his endorsement the controversial GOP nominee.

Polls show Portman with a double-digit lead, but Strickland said he still believes he can pull off an upset win in this battleground state. The GOP lawmaker said it was not an easy decision for him to make “because I am a Republican” and Trump “had won the nomination fairly and squarely.”

Portman said Trump’s lewd comments about women, made in a 2005 video and disclosed last Friday, were the “last straw.”

He said Strickland had failed to condemn Clinton over her remarks labeling half of Trump’s supporters deplorable and irredeemable, saying that showed Strickland would be a “total rubber stamp” for the Democratic nominee.

Strickland noted that Trump had made a string of incendiary comments before the 2005 tape was discovered–including openly mocking a disabled reporter and attacking a Gold Star family.

“He should have rejected this man” long before last week,” Strickland said. But “he didn’t because he was thinking about his own political career.”

He ridiculed Portman’s assertion that he will now vote for Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence; Portman said he made that announcement because “I wanted to send a message about who I’m going to support.”

What’s next? 

Portman and Strickland will face off again on Monday in Columbus;  that debate, sponsored by Columbus Dispatch and WBNS-10TV, will air from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be streamed live on 10TV.com

The final match-up will unfold Oct. 20th in Cleveland, at an event sponsored by the Cleveland City Club and Scripps ABC.

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