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How one Republican is navigating the Trump hurricane

For down-ballot Republicans cautiously orbiting their presidential nominee Donald Trump, the summer of 2016 has been akin to a dinghy navigating the Atlantic in a hurricane.

The hero of this sizzling summer for Republicans is an unlikely one: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, in many ways Trump’s polar opposite. Yet the mild-mannered favorite of the Republican establishment has emerged as one of the few GOP Senators in a tough race who’s managed to stay above water.  

A Monmouth University Poll released on Monday showed Portman with an 8-point lead over his opponent, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. Perhaps even more impressive, he is running 9 points ahead of the Trump, who is currently trailing Clinton by four points (43 percent to 39 percent) in a state he likely must carry in order to win. 

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Portman’s one armed hug of Trump has kept the billionaire’s fervent supporters at bay. At the same time, he’s eschewed just about every other act out of Trump’s campaign playbook, including the candidate himself, opting instead for an independent, grassroots field operation and data-driven campaign with a more inclusive approach. 

Traditionally, each party has a coordinated statewide field operation in a swing state during a presidential cycle that works to elect candidates up and down the ballot. Portman has opted for a separate operation, a rarity in modern day campaigns.

Still, Portman and Trump’s loveless marriage hasn’t caused any dust ups between the two.

“I have a very good relationship with him,” Trump told ABC Cleveland in an interview on Tuesday, but said he hadn’t asked Portman to join him at his rallies in Ohio this week.

“Portman has done a good job making his job not about Trump,” Tim Miller, a GOP strategist and former communications director for Jeb Bush, told CBS News. “The Republicans who are struggling are the ones who don’t have their own identity. The National Republican Senatorial Committee put out a memo back in November of last year that said to prepare for Trump as the nominee and he took that to heart.”

“He saw this coming and made the race about himself and the successes he’s had and hasn’t gotten dragged into any of the Trump drama,” Miller said.

Even with the GOP convention in his home state this year, Portman declined the opportunity to speak at Trump’s coronation. He has yet to appear with him on the campaign trail. You’d be hard-pressed to find a photo of the two together, and Portman has been openly critical of Trump’s recent inflammatory remarks.

On Tuesday, Portman told Cleveland.com that he values the support of Ohio Governor John Kasich - another Republican but a fierce Trump opponent - over that of Trump.

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“There is no one more important than John Kasich in this campaign,” Portman said. “I don’t think there’s any surrogate who is more effective.”  

The popular two-term governor has still not endorsed Trump but re-electing Portman is a top priority, according to an aide.

“In Ohio, the Republican brand, thanks to Senator Portman and Governor Kasich, is not tied to Donald Trump’s Ohio as it is in other states,” said Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Kasich. “They’ve seen Republicans govern inclusively, changing their state. And that’s not something they’ve seen in Pennsylvania or other states.”  

Strickland’s onetime blue-dog brand - he once had the support of the NRA and hails from the conservative, rural southeastern corner of the state - no longer completely jives with the Democratic coalition of 2016.

The one–term governor and former congressman previously relied on Appalachian Ohio as a stronghold. But Trump’s populist, anti-trade economic message and his promise to revitalize the coal industry has resonated with disaffected Democrats in the region who have defected to the Republican Party under President Obama.

Portman, who has even managed to pick up an endorsement from the United Mine Workers and three other unions that traditionally side with Democrats, is fighting for a share of Strickland’s home turf.

Also helping Portman avoid the Trump trap: Several Ohio Republicans told CBS News that Portman has avoided the organizational deficit that has hamstrung his peers who waited on a campaign infrastructure from the top of the ticket rather than building out their own.

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Trump’s late blooming Ohio operation recently expanded – they beefed up their skeleton of a staff and opened fifteen regional offices -- but Portman has ten field offices of his own, around 500 full time volunteers, 10 field staffers and have been using the Koch Brothers-backed i360 data service since early 2015.

Democrats in the state argue that Portman is trying to thread a too-narrow needle in the face of the Ohio Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign that boasts 32 offices. The sitting senator can’t single-handedly drive a race in a presidential year swing state against a cohesive Clinton- Strickland campaign apparatus, Democrats say.

Backing them up: A recent study conducted in 2014 by Brookings and AEI showed split-ticket voting between Presidential and House Candidates hit an all-time low in 2012.  

“It’s an entirely coordinated campaign working in one voice and all the data is shared,” one veteran Democratic operative told CBS News of his party’s efforts. “The presidential campaign drives these races; it’s where enthusiasm comes from.”

“The idea that Portman has a ground game of his own is complete and total fiction,” another Democratic operative told CBS News.

Portman certainly has a financial edge over Strickland: The former NRSC vice chairman is a prolific fundraiser with close ties to the Republican donor class. Outside groups are spending more money on this 2016 race than any other congressional race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A majority of the money has been spent trying drive up unfavorable opinions of Strickland’s – he’s faced more negative advertising than any other Democrat in 2016. According to the Monmouth poll, 37 percent of voters’ views of Strickland are unfavorable versus 20 percent of voters who hold an unfavorable view of Portman.

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The Koch Brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund released a $1 million dollar TV ad buy in Ohio on Tuesday​, meant to boost Portman by highlighting Strickland’s ties to Clinton. It features a clip of Clinton from a town hall in March in which she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business.”

Attacks from Portman and his allies on Strickland’s tenure as Governor during the Recession in 2007 and 2008 that underscore Ohio’s economic downturn have haunted the candidate as well. One particularly damaging attack ad funded by the Koch Brothers came at the end of June that claimed Strickland left the state with a “$6 billion dollar budget shortfall.” Strickland released his second ad of the campaign on Wednesday defending his use of Ohio’s Rainy Day Fund as Governor.  

“Well friends, I was governor during the great national recession and we all know it was raining pretty hard,” Strickland says to the camera. “So I used the Rainy Day Fund because I wouldn’t cut education or local police and fire. And we balanced the budget every year.”

“Attack Ads are easy. Leading in a crisis is hard,” Strickland concludes.

“What all the polls have consistently showed is that after Senator Portman and his allies have spent over $30 million against Ted they’ve failed to put this race away,” David Bergstein, Strickland’s communications director, told CBS News. 

“With the start of our paid communications the underlying dynamics of this race are changing and we’re entering a new stage of the campaign where Ohioans will start learning about the central contrast in this race: Ted is fighting for working people because that’s where he comes from and that’s who he cares about – while Senator Portman is pushing the agenda of his rich and powerful friends at Ohio’s expense.”

And while a Clinton landslide might still bring Strickland to Washington, Republicans are feeling optimistic.

“At the end of the day, can you expect to beat the top of the ticket by 20 points? Probably not,” a veteran Ohio Republican told CBS News. “If it gets so dispiriting at the top of the ticket, it’s possible no one will vote at all. But Portman is running a great campaign.”

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