Will There Be An East Side Senate Showdown in 2016?

As Ohio’s 2016 U.S. Senate race takes shape, a matchup looms that threatens to sunder the tiny bistros and luxurious McMansions spread from Hyde Park to Indian Hill across Cincinnati’s east side. The potentially divisive question: Who to choose if the contest boils down to two private school and Ivy League educated sons of prominent “Blue Book” listed Cincinnati families?

In one corner: the 60-year-old incumbent Republican with a deep resume of experience in two presidential administrations. In the other corner: the scrappy 30-something Democratic challenger, light of resume, but with blazing charm and political skills.

Rob Portman, the son of an east side industrialist and a graduate of Cincinnati Country Day, Dartmouth and Michigan Law, seems born to his role as a U.S. senator, if from a less divisive era. After serving in two Bush White Houses, and a short stay as our east side congressman, he thumped Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher to win his first term in 2010.

Portman anchors the ever-shrinking “grown up” wing of the GOP. He’s Bob Dole without the snarl; John McCain without the permanent seat on Meet the Press; a compassionate conservative like George W. Bush.

Unlike Ted Cruz, Portman actually has been caught co-sponsoring bills with Democratic colleagues. It’s hard to imagine Rob Portman refusing to acknowledge the theory of evolution or being a vaccination denier.

His choice to stand by a gay son, who came out not long ago, earned our junior senator the admiration of even Yellow Dog Democrats, including me.

P. G. Sittenfeld is another scion of a distinguished east side family. Sittenfield graduated from Seven Hills School and Princeton, before launching a political career in Cincinnati. His ability to appeal across party and racial lines, raise mucho campaign cash and charm the pants off just about everyone made him the top finisher in the 2015 Council race.

Now that Sittenfeld has jumped into the race to replace Sen. Portman, the stage is set for what could be a monumental Cincy-centric showdown.

At first glance, both geography and history seem to make Sittenfeld a pronounced underdog. No Democrat from the Cincinnati area has been the Democratic candidate for senator since former Cincinnati Councilmember Jack “The Giant Killer” Gilligan defeated incumbent Democrat Frank Lausche in a bruising 1968 primary, which hinged on Gilligan’s opposition to the Vietnam War. But Gilligan ultimately lost the seat in a tight November general election to Republican Bill Saxbe.

In 1970, Gilligan built on his 1968 breakthrough and was elected governor. He was the last Cincinnati-area Democrat to win a partisan statewide race. That’s 45 years and counting of drought for local Democrats trying to break out of Hamilton County.

But a triumphant re-election is no sure thing for Sen. Portman. As part of the new GOP Senate majority, he may be tainted by Congress’ do-nothing reputation. When every national holiday seems to excuse a week or two of recess for our hardworking members of Congress, voters notice. And Sen. Portman’s low-key personality and grown-up governing style does not light a fire within the far-right wing of his party. That may explain why Portman’s approval rating in recent polls is well below 50 percent.

Count on this: as the 2016 Senate race goes down to the wire, more than a few Queen City Club lunch hours will devolve into bickering about whether the veteran incumbent with the Country Day and Dartmouth diplomas, or the young and uppity challenger with the Seven Hills and Princeton connections, should be our next U.S. senator.

Don Mooney is a partner at the Cincinnati office of Ulmer & Berne LLC, and is active in local politics.