Battle for union vote erupts in Ohio
© Greg Nash

A battle for the union vote has erupted in the Ohio Senate race, with Republican Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWeek ahead in tech: Debate over online sex trafficking bill heats up 'Hillbilly Elegy' author won't run for Senate Brown, Portman urge Trump administration to move quickly on a steel decision MORE seeking to make inroads with labor groups traditionally aligned with Democrats.

Democrat Ted Strickland, a former Ohio governor, has received the bulk of the union endorsements in the race. But Portman, the incumbent, has recently garnered the support of several labor groups that have backed Strickland in the past.

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Portman recently received endorsements from the Ohio Conference of Teamsters, which has more than 50,000 members, and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) of Ohio, which has more than 25,000 members. Last month, he received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

All three of these groups endorsed Strickland when he was running for governor, though the FOP has a history of endorsing Republicans in Senate races.

Portman has been playing up the endorsements. Over the weekend, his campaign planned to pass out flyers touting the union support at rallies for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE. On Thursday, the Portman campaign released a radio ad relating to the endorsements that is playing in Southeast Ohio, the Appalachian region of the state that Strickland previously represented in the House.

“Ted Strickland used to listen to us on issues like coal, manufacturing jobs and the Second Amendment, but he’s changed,” a narrator says in the ad.

The Strickland campaign has countered criticism of the former governor’s economic record, saying that when he left office, shortly after the Great Recession, Ohio had the fifth fastest growing economy in the country. A spokesman for Strickland expressed confidence that union members will back the Democrat in overwhelming numbers.

“The contrast in this election couldn’t be more clear: Ted is on the side of Ohioans who actually work for a living because that’s where he comes from and that’s who cares about — while Senator Portman is pushing the agenda of his rich and powerful friends at the expense of working families,” David Bergstein said in an email.

Strickland has also touted his own union endorsements. The same day Portman announced the FOP endorsement, Strickland announced an endorsement from the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters. More than three dozen unions have backed Strickland, including the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers.

The Ohio Senate race is crucial in the fight for the majority. To regain control of Senate, Democrats need a net gain of four seats if they win the White House, and a net gain of five seats if they lose the presidential election.

The contest in Ohio is likely to be close, with RealClearPolitics’ polling average putting Portman up by 4 points. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the race to a toss-up.

With the margin of victory in the race expected to be tight, every voting bloc has the potential to be a difference-maker, including major labor unions.

Republican strategists said that the union endorsements for Portman signal that momentum is on his side.

The endorsements “signal that the Democrats’ attempt to grab the state of Ohio just became much more difficult,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based GOP strategist who consulted on Portman’s 2010 campaign, said that while the Buckeye State is no longer the union powerhouse it once was, in the eastern part of the state “having their support makes a big difference.”

“I think every endorsement in a close race matters,” he said.

One thing that has helped Portman secure union support is his work in the Senate on pension issue related to labor.

He has co-sponsored a bill to fix a shortfall in a pension plan for miners and has worked with colleagues in coal states to ensure that the Senate Finance Committee votes on the measure in September. He also introduced legislation to give retirees a say if their pension funds propose benefit cuts and successfully urged the Treasury Department to reject proposed cuts to the Central States Pension Fund, whose members include Teamsters.

But the Portman campaign said that the pension issue is only one part of why the groups backed him.

“All this is about Rob Portman’s record versus Ted Strickland’s record,” said Portman campaign manager Corry Bliss. While Portman has worked to ensure that Ohio residents have good paying jobs, the state lost hundreds of thousands of jobs while Strickland was governor, he added.

Bliss said he expects more unions to endorse Portman in the weeks ahead.

One major question in the race is how the battle between the two presidential nominees — Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE and Hillary Clinton — will affect candidates down ballot, including Portman and Strickland.

Weaver said that predictions that Trump would be a drag on Republican down-ballot races have “not borne out yet.”

Bliss noted that Clinton has high unfavorable ratings in the state and said that the Portman campaign was designed to “win under any circumstances.” He said the different grades that Ohio voters give Portman and Strickland are like an “A and an F.”

But Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said that Democratic get out the vote efforts will be much stronger than Republican efforts in Ohio because Gov. John Kasich (R) has not been supporting Trump.

Strickland should only face “minor damage” from the union endorsements for Portman and should be in good shape so long the state AFL-CIO is backing him, Bannon said.

The labor movement “is going to make a really big push in Ohio for Clinton and that will benefit Strickland too,” he said.

Bergstein of the Strickland campaign called Trump a “nightmare” for Portman.

“Trump is energizing Democrats, alienating moderate Republicans and turning off independents who decide elections in Ohio,” he told The Hill.