COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a spirited second debate Monday, Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic challenger Ted Strickland sparred over their parties’ presidential nominees and accused each other of bending the truth to get an edge with voters.
Portman and Strickland often spoke directly into the camera at WBNS-TV’s studios in Columbus, appealing to the battleground state’s divided electorate with personal stories of pulling themselves up through hard work and education.
Portman, of Cincinnati, said he wants to continue to be an “independent voice” in Washington, citing his bipartisan efforts to fight the heroin crisis, human trafficking and worker dislocation.
Strickland said he wants to spend the rest of his life fighting for Ohio’s working people.
The debate began with the two trading jabs over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Strickland, of eastern Ohio, challenged the timing of Portman’s decision to rescind his endorsement of Trump until nearly the end of the race, after he was well ahead in the polls. Portman responded that he has since pulled his support, while Strickland has continued to defend questionable actions by Clinton.
The candidates revisited common campaign trail lines throughout much of the debate — disagreeing over trade issues, how much and how fast to raise the minimum wage and ease of access to guns.
One of their most pointed exchanges involved the performance of the economy during Strickland’s tenure as governor, which has been highlighted in millions of dollars in ads airing across the state.
Portman said “the last thing you want to do is send Ted Strickland to the United States Senate,” pointing to spending, tax increases and the spending of all but 89 cents of Ohio’s rainy day fund on Strickland’s watch.
“He left the next administration with an $8 billion deficit in January 2011,” Portman said. “Eight billion dollars. Unprecedented.”
Strickland said Portman and outside groups supporting his candidacy, including one backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, have distorted his record.
“It was a national recession, and it was a recession that was caused not by Ohio, not by me as governor, but it was caused by the Bush administration policies and Wall Street,” Strickland said. “And you were George Bush’s trade representative and budget director leading up to the collapse of the economy. And you criticize me for having lost jobs?”
While debating a hike in the minimum wage, the two candidates’ sparred over their personal incomes.
Strickland said he had calculated Portman’s income and investments and it amounted to $333.57 per hour, yet the senator had voted against raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
Portman said he does support an increase in the minimum wage, but more gradual than the proposal supported by Strickland and indexed to inflation.
After Strickland described taking “the minimum wage challenge” to see what life at that income level is like, Portman said Strickland collected $400,000 while working at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress after leaving the governor’s office.
Strickland challenged the statement: “Oh, senator, that’s a big whopper. I’ve never made $400,000 in my life.” Portman cited a total that included retirement and other non-salary income.
Outside the event, Portman supporters lined the road with dozens of campaign signs and cheered the candidate on as he entered the parking lot. A much smaller group cheered for Strickland, who has seen national Democratic groups pull their financial support in recent weeks.
Across the road, supporters of Green Party Senate candidate Joseph DeMare protested not being invited to the event.
Portman and Strickland will meet for one final debate on Thursday at the City Club in Cleveland.