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Should the Democrats Fear Rob Portman?

Ohio’s George Voinovich will retire rather than run for re-election in 2010. When I was looking at senatorial career paths the other day, Voinovich had the track record that perhaps impressed me the most, having been governor, lieutenant governor, a Republican (although officially nonpartisan) mayor in the very Democratic city of Cleveland, and then serving two terms in the Senate.

GOP folks don’t seem too upset, though, because one of their rising stars, former 2nd District Congressman and OMB director Rob Portman, is strongly considering a run for the position. Is Portman someone whom the Democrats should be worried about — the de facto favorite against a Democratic candidate like Tim Ryan?

I’m not so sure. Even if the political climate has turned slightly more toward the Republicans in 2010, being a member of the Bush cabinet is not likely to be one of those things that sells all that well to voters – nor is “wonk” likely to play as well in a state like Ohio as “populist”. Portman won election to the Congress seven times between 1993 and 2004, receiving between 70 and 77 percent of the vote on each occasion, but OH-2 is very conservative and that is pretty much par for the course for a Republican in that district. Nor is the electoral environment all that favorable for Republicans in Ohio right now, where they’re now at roughly an 8-point disadvantage in partisan identification.

Still, Portman will have little trouble raising funds from Republican partisans, and could very easily accumulate as large a warchest as Voinovich might have had. He’ll know how to hire a staff and how to run a campaign. And while his name recognition is probably pretty far from 100 percent statewide, he’ll get plenty of earned media between now and then — it’s easy enough to imagine Portman becoming a semi-regular on FOX News or CNBC to talk about the economy.

Basically, he’ll have most of the advantages that Voinovich would have had, as we’ll as Voinovich’s biggest disadvantage — he’s an establishment Republican in a state where establishment Republicans aren’t very popular. Ultimately, this election will be a litmus test for how much voters blame Bush versus Obama if the economy is still tepid in 2010.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.