Gay marriage and guns.
Two issues, so completely different from one another, and yet they have defined Ohio’s junior senator, Rob Portman, in 2013.
Pundits and politicians alike are pondering how the Terrace Park Republican’s positions on these hot-button issues will impact his chances for re-election in 2016.
2016 seems to be a long way away; but, in politics, it is never too early to start thinking about the next election.
Portman breezed to election to his first term in 2010, demolishing the former Ohio attorney general, Democrat Lee Fisher, in the battle to take the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by Republican George Voinovich’s retirement.
Last year, Portman was on the short list of potential running mates for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, ultimately losing out to Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan.
But Portman threw himself into the Romney-Ryan campaign heart and soul – campaigning for the ticket in the key state of Ohio and elsewhere, playing the role of President Obama in Romney’s debate preps.
Just a few short months ago, it seemed ridiculous to think that Portman might be vulnerable should he choose to run for re-election in 2016.
Then, in mid-March, he changed the game.
Portman announced – in an interview with CNN and a column in the Columbus Dispatch – that he supported same-sex marriage. This is the same Rob Portman who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act while a congressman from southwest Ohio in 1996.
But, he explained, it was the fact that in 2011, his son Will, a student at Yale, told his parents that he was gay that caused him to be able to come to the position that gay marriage should be legal.At the time, he was the only Republican in the Senate to take such a position.
The social conservatives who had supported Portman in the past were furious.
Phil Burress, the leader of the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, vowed to work to get Portman un-elected in 2016.
“There are a lot of values voters and they just won’t accept this,’’ Burress told WVXU. “They will not accept this. And we will make sure they know about it.”
As of Friday, there was some empirical evidence on what that Portman switch on gay marriage cost him, if anything.
The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute surveyed 1,138 registered Ohio voters from April 10-15, and found that Portman’s approval rating had dipped to 40 percent from 44 percent in February. It dipped mainly because, among Republicans, his approval rating dropped from 63 percent to 57 percent. His disapproval rating from Republicans jumped from eight percent in February to 21 percent in April.
There’s only one explanation for that – his stance on gay marriage. Four of every 10 Republicans polled said they think less favorably of Portman because of his support of same-sex marriage.
And among the critical independent voters, his disapproval rating leaped from 23 percent to 35 percent.
But overall among Ohio voters, Portman is not in the minority – 48 percent told Quinnipiac they support same-sex marriage, while 44 percent disapproved.
Keep in mind – this is in a state where, in 2004, 63 percent of the electorate voted for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Times have changed.
Some of the same people who were pleased when Portman came out in favor of gay marriage were furious last week when he voted with most of his fellow GOP senators to let a bill, the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which would have expanded background checks on gun sales, die without coming to an up-or-down floor vote.
A Democratic state representative from Youngstown, Bob Hagan, was so spitting mad over Portman’s vote against background checks that he tweeted out a message saying the “NRA owns him” and announced his own candidacy to oppose Portman in 2016.
Friday, members of groups in favor of gun control staged a protest march from Fountain Square to Portman’s downtown office, calling him out for his vote on Manchin-Toomey.
Portman – a gun owner and hunter who has benefited from NRA campaign contributions over the years – said in a written statement that he does not believe the amendment “would be effective in preventing the kind of heart-breaking loss of life seen in Newtown or in other recent tragic incidents.”
He is open, he said, to “other actions Congress can and should take to reduce gun violence without infringing on Second Amendment rights.”
But that same Quinnipiac Poll showed that Portman, on background checks for gun sales, is way out of the Ohio mainstream.
A whopping 84 percent of those polled – including 80 percent of those who said they own guns – said they support requiring background checks for all persons who try to buy guns.
And that number included 75 percent of the Republicans polled.
Will any of this matter, or be remembered, when Portman has to be run for re-election in earnest?
Maybe so, maybe no.
The good news for Portman is that he has three years to do damage control.