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The Union Factor In The U.S. Senate Race

Andy Chow
L-R U.S Senator Rob Portman and Challenger Ted Strickland

In recent weeks, Republican U.S. Senator Rob Portman has raised some eyebrows after receiving some endorsements from labor groups that often back Democrats. But some other big labor organizations in the Buckeye State are warning not to read too much into that.

The head of the Ohio AFLCIO, Tim Burga, says his organization represents about a half million members who are backing Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ted Strickland for his stand on issues affecting workers.

“Rob Portman has been wrong and Ted Strickland has been right.” :04

The United Steelworkers’ Dave Caldwell says his members are also standing by Strickland because Portman has not been on the right side of trade issues until he started campaigning for reelection.

“The hypocrisy of this guy is absolutely unbelievable.” :03

But not all unions believe Portman is being hypocritical when it comes to his support for workers. The Ohio Conference of Teamsters, which represents more than 50,000 members throughout Ohio, has endorsed Portman. So has the state’s largest law enforcement union, the Fraternal Order of Police. Portman also has backing from some unions representing operating engineers and mine workers.  Portman says he believes he has this support because he’s right on issues affecting workers.

“They want to have a fair shake and they have seen what I have done.”

Portman says he’s supported bills to crack down on unfair trade practices.

“My legislation which is called ‘Level the Playing Field’, enables Ohio workers to be able to compete, whether it’s steel workers or tire workers or paper workers, whether it is the construction trades who are involved in those businesses – they want to be sure that we are cracking down on those unfair imports coming in. And I’ve done that, not just said it. And it’s making a difference for Ohio workers.”

But Strickland says the handful of unions that have supported Portman are doing so because they want him to support legislation that would protect their pensions. Strickland says those unions know he will also protect their pensions if he gets elected. But the former Governor says the vast majority of the state’s unions back him because they know he’s backed them in the past by rejecting trade deals and legislation that hurts union workers. 

“Senator Portman has a long memory problem. He seems to be unable to remember anything that happened before I became a candidate in this Senate race.”

Portman is going to participate in Pelatonia, the 100 mile long cycling fundraiser for cancer this weekend. Strickland, who is sometimes painted by Republicans as being lackluster, suggests Portman should be competing somewhere else.

“He ought to go to Rio and join the track team because he has learned how to run really fast away from his record. He may go over there and set a world record as a matter of fact.”

What might set a record in this U.S. Senate race is the amount of money spent on it. Both parties see Portman’s seat as critical to either keeping the Senate in Republican hands or flipping it to Democratic control. Paperwork filed at the end of June show more than $43 million have been spent so far on the race by the candidates and by outside groups – the vast majority of it by Portman and those who support him. The website Open Secrets shows that so-called “dark money” being spent against Strickland is by groups that don’t have to name their contributors. Portman has dominated Strickland in fundraising, and has spent about $7.5 million, mostly on advertising. But so far, all the advertising in favor of Strickland has been bought by outside groups.

Contact Jo Ingles at