Veepstakes cloud Senate GOP hopes of preserving majority

Greg Nash

The Republican imperative to put together a strong White House ticket is butting up against the party’s dream of preserving the Senate GOP majority.

Republican strategists say Sens. Rob PortmanRob PortmanGrassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' Senate passes funding bill to avoid shutdown Ryan optimistic about GOP majorities in House and Senate MORE of Ohio and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate passes funding bill to avoid shutdown Ryan optimistic about GOP majorities in House and Senate Dems gain upper hand on budget MORE of New Hampshire are two of the party’s most promising vice presidential candidates.

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Unfortunately for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMichigan Dems highlight Flint with unanimous opposition to CR Congress departs for recess until after Election Day How Congress averted a shutdown MORE (R-Ky.), both are running for reelection in swing states that could determine which party controls the upper chamber in 2017.

Republicans believe Portman, who was also seen as a possible VP in 2012, would add gravitas to the White House ticket and help deliver to the GOP column Ohio, which decided the 2004 presidential election.

Ayotte would help the ticket compete for female voters — Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Congress departs for recess until after Election Day House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown MORE’s core constituency. She also has solid foreign policy credentials and could up the party’s chances of winning New Hampshire, though it has only four electoral votes compared to Ohio’s 18.

Republicans may, of course, look outside the Senate for a vice presidential candidate.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running for president, is seen as an attractive possibility if he bows out of the race. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s attacks on Clinton have spurred speculation she could be a VP pick as well, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who will deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union next week, is another possibility.

Still, Portman is generally better liked than Kasich, who is known for being abrasive, and Ayotte has foreign policy credentials that will be in demand at a time when national security concerns are dominating the news.

“Portman could be important,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq McCain comments won't derail Bergdahl case Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign. “Portman makes geographical sense.”

Much depends on who wins the nomination; front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Trump camp talking points: Mention Monica Lewinsky Trump floats theory that Google suppresses negative news on Clinton MORE, Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzHouse approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? MORE, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioLanny Davis: Clinton a clear winner, with or without sound Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? Koch-linked veterans group launches ads in Senate battlegrounds MORE and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all have different strengths and weaknesses.

“If someone like Rubio’s going to win the nomination, he’s going to look for someone in Ohio or someone who does well with white working class voters,” O’Connell added. “Trump on the other hand would like to have someone like Rubio,” who could attract Hispanic voters and has national security bona fides as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel.

“Portman’s strength is not only has he been effective in Congress, he’s been effective in the administration. He would come into the [vice president’s] role as a senior statesman,” said Patrick Davis, a former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“I would put Rob Portman on that list. He’s a good one.”

Ayotte has emerged as a leading Senate voice on national security issues, often teaming up with McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in debates. She is also a member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security panels.

“Kelly Ayotte is someone who is very well liked on both sides. She has foreign policy credentials. She is very solid on Second Amendment issues. She would be a great choice assuming Hillary Clinton gets the nomination to balance out the ticket with a woman,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former senior Senate aide.

Ayotte’s stock as a potential veep has risen since the holiday break, as the standing of another prominent Republican woman, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, has sunk. Martinez is on the defensive because of reports that she sought to call police away from a complaint about a wild party she and her staff were having at a Santa Fe hotel.

Portman and Ayotte are allowed under Ohio and New Hampshire state law to run for the Senate and the vice presidency simultaneously, but doing so would have serious risks. Their Democratic opponents would argue they are more interested in seeking higher office than serving constituents exclusively.

Two recent Public Policy Polling surveys show Ayotte and her Democratic rival, Gov. Maggie Hassan, essentially tied. A Quinnipiac poll from early October showed Portman trailing former Gov. Ted Strickland by a few points.

Other possible vice presidential candidates in the Senate cited by GOP strategists are Rubio, Cruz and Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneYahoo failed to prioritize security: report Overnight Tech: Lawmakers, tech talk diversity | Group raises security worries over internet handoff | FCC commish wants probe into debate Wi-Fi Reid blocks Thune tech bill over FCC nomination fight MORE (R-S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership.

Rubio has appeal with young voters and Hispanics and would make the ticket more attractive in Florida, a
major swing state.

He is running in third place in Iowa, second place in New Hampshire and third place nationally.

Cruz is leading the GOP field in Iowa, polling in third place in New Hampshire and running second in national polls behind Trump. While some Republicans think he would be a liability in purple states because of his conservative views, he would be a valuable addition to the ticket if he fails to win the nomination because of his appeal with GOP base voters.

“You might need a conservative to turn out the conservative base if you nominate a Rubio or a Bush or even a Kasich,” said Davis. “We’re going to have trouble if we don’t put a Trump or a Cruz on the ticket to turn out the base.”

Thune is seen as a strong vice presidential option because he has strong credentials with Republican conservatives across the country and, as a member of the Senate GOP leadership, would be acceptable to establishment Republicans as well. He still has a national profile from defeating then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in 2004.

“Someone who is very well liked and would carry along conservative as well as establishment support is John Thune. He is vigorous and young,” said Ullyot.