“Let me introduce you to Congressman Rob Portman,” someone said as I shook hands with a lanky man in the aisle seat on our flight to San Diego. We were headed for the National Republican Convention to watch the Grand Old Party jump off a cliff with Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. It was 1995, back in the days when newspapers sent columnists to cover the conventions, so I could learn that the Republican Party was run by Buick dealers and the Democrats were led by trial lawyers in gold chains trailed by trophy wives and disgruntled plaintiffs.

I don’t remember what Portman talked about on the plane—something like banana tariffs or NAFTA. But he was genuine, likeable, modest and friendly. I was still the “new guy” at the Enquirer, and he seemed like the essential Cincinnati Man—Brooks Brothers and Hunt Club during the week, L.L. Bean and Orvis on the weekends. Midwestern casual, but Washington wonky. Dartmouth and University of Michigan Law, but raised working on the family forklift farm, Portman Equipment Company.

By that time he had already been a White House counsel for Bush 41. After serving in the House during the Clinton years, he helped Vice President Dick Cheney prepare for his debate against Joe Lieberman in the 2000 election. He joined the Bush 43 team as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget.

After that, he came back to Cincinnati, helped his family run their Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, then won a Senate seat in 2010. He quickly made the pundits’ short list of presidential candidates for 2016. Even Democrats had to grudgingly admit that Portman was the answer to the question, “Can you name one good man in Washington?”

He made pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire, but then his presidential campaign fell off the map. “I just decided that I owed it to the people of Ohio to get things done,” he explains. “I think that’s why they hired me. And I was not eager to put my family through it.”

Whatever the reason, it was a good call. This is not the year for polite, wonky, bipartisan moderates. This is the year for scenery-chewing comic-book action heroes who throw out the bums. This is the year establishment Republicans have the bewildered look of wooly mammoths when the meteor struck, frozen stiff in mid-filibuster by a sudden political ice age.

Portman will have both hands full just holding his Senate seat in a race against Democrat former Gov. Ted Strickland, assuming both win March 15 primaries against undercard opponents.

Their race is expected to be one of the roughest in 2016, as both parties fight over swing-state Ohio for the White House and the Senate. Portman and Strickland could each spend north of $20 million on Ohio’s scattered media markets, if they can raise it. As the year began, Portman had $12 million, about $10 million more than Strickland. But Strickland has higher name ID and favorability. In one Ohio poll, 37 percent said they didn’t know enough about Portman to have an opinion—meaning he has to introduce himself and remind voters why Strickland was booted in 2010 for losing jobs and piling on debt. Portman Campaign Manager Corry Bliss says, “Strickland has enough baggage to sink the Titanic.”

Maybe true. But that young congressman on the plane to San Diego has also picked up some luggage in the past 20 years.

Bag 1: Portman shocked Ohio in March of 2013 by coming out in favor of gay marriage. He says, “It was a family issue for me,” driven by his college student son, Will, who is gay. “It was an issue of the heart. A lot of people who disagree with me on that still support me.”

But some do not. Phil Burress, leader of Citizens for Community Values, says that in a straw poll of 550 pro-life religious leaders in the Ohio Pro-Family Forum, nobody backed Portman. “We all felt manipulated,” he says, because Portman was elected as an opponent of gay marriage. “He’s a typical Republican. He stands for nothing. Everybody’s fed up with them. All they care about is running for re-election.”

Bag 2: A former Portman fundraiser says he was dismayed by Portman’s role in the ugly re-election of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. “It was a very poor choice,” says the Cincinnati conservative.

Portman says it was his duty as vice-chair of the National Republican Senate Committee to help Cochran defeat a Tea Party challenger and deliver a Republican Senate majority. “I didn’t want to see [Democrat] Harry Reid continue control of the Senate.”

Portman gave $25,000 to Cochran, who squeaked out a runoff win with a smear-a-thon. Cochran, aka the “King of Pork,” is the textbook illustration of the hacks that voters hate. He lied about his affair with a staffer while his wife was in a nursing home, and barely won a runoff thanks to race-baiting lies like “the Tea Party intends to keep blacks from voting.” If Cochran finishes his seventh term, he will be 83, going on 50 years in the Senate and House. If the Republican mastodons want to know why voters are so salty, see Pork King Cochran, et al.

Bag 3: Portman was first to expose IRS targeting of conservative groups. In 2013, he called it “everything that is wrong with Washington,” a scandal that “shattered the trust of the American people in their government.” But three years later… crickets. Nobody has been fired, prosecuted or held accountable.

Lois Lerner, the IRS Torquemada who persecuted conservative groups through the Cincinnati office, pleaded the Fifth and was given paid leave, then resigned to work for a Wall Street law firm. IRS Director John Koskinen, who lied and stonewalled while evidence was destroyed, kept his job.

“I’m really angry about it,” Portman says. But voters can supply the anger. They want results. Portman’s low name ID reflects the absence of even symbolic victories by Republicans against the IRS, Planned Parenthood, illegal immigration, Obamacare and binge spending. Voters are underwhelmed.

Which opens Bag 4: Portman did not pack this one himself, but it could be the most dangerous. National Journal rates his Senate race as the sixth toughest for a Republican this year, adding, “He’s a Chamber of Commerce Republican when many voters in his party are more in tune with the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump.”

If enough Republicans stay home on Nov. 8 because Trump is or is not on the ticket, Portman could catch low-turnout Romney flu and lose. 

Outsiders are the team to beat in the presidential race. But in Ohio, the Senate race is a throwback-uniform game of insiders. Strickland’s Huey Long class-war populism is about as subtle as Cleveland’s howling Dog Pound. Portman’s team calls Strickland “retread Ted, the worst Senate candidate in the country.” Strickland will try to make Portman look like the robber baron Montgomery Burns of Terrace Park. The negative ads will be relentless. By the time it’s over, we will want to drag our TVs through a car wash.

So let me introduce you to Rob Portman. The lanky man on the plane is now 60, which makes him just a freshman in the Senate. “If I’m still around at the age some of these people are, I hope someone comes along to kick me out,” he says. 

He is still genuine, likeable, modest and friendly. He says, “I have built my career on getting things done,” citing 35 bills he has sponsored in the Senate that were signed into law. By comparison, in two Senate terms Hillary Clinton passed three—to name a highway, a post office and a historic site. 

Portman’s record of bipartisan success is especially amazing in the shadow of Obama the Great Divider, who has made American politics into a zombie-movie virus that turns ordinary soccer dads and PTA church moms into staggering, mouth-foaming leg-biters. 

But being the good guy who gets things done may not be enough. The question this year is “Get what done? Will you represent us in Washington? Or will you get infected like the rest of the D.C. Walking Dead and represent the worst of Washington to us?”

The Chinese calendar says this is The Year of the Monkey. The American calendar looks more like The Year of the Tasmanian Devil.