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Ohio Senator Rob Portman On The Senate Landscape, Including In Kansas, And Our Reaction To The Ebola Threat

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HH: I wouldn’t be deterred from coming in today, because yesterday, the Cleveland Browns stage the greatest away field comeback in the history of the NFL, and I may mention that, oh, about a hundred times today. But I begin the program with an Ohio Senator, Rob Portman, who’s from Cincinnati, so I know he says he likes the Browns, but he probably is secretly a Bengals fan. Hello, Senator.

RP: Hugh Hewitt, how are you?

HH: I’m terrific, thank you. I saw you were running a triathlon.

RP: It’s always a, I was running a triathlon yesterday, but I did get the report on the Browns game, which was not good at halftime, not good in the third quarter, and then they ended up pulling it off in fantastic…you know, they’ve had a couple of very close losses recently. They showed some promise, so I was glad to see them win one.

HH: Now how often do you do triathlons, Senator?

RP: Well, I like to schedule them about, you know, six or nine months ahead so that I actually have to try to stay in halfway decent shape, you know what I mean? I use the competition to try to force myself to get out there and do something now and again.

HH: That’s the Little Miami triathlon. My son, who’s a graduate of Miami University, went up to Lake Tahoe to run an ironman last week, and they cancelled it nine minutes before the start.

RP: Oh.

HH: I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that position, but it’s somewhat deflating.

RP: Oh, man, I guess so. Did he ever compete in the Little Miami triathlon when he was at Miami?

HH: No, he took up the biking and the running after. He’s always been a swimmer. But that’s…

RP: Yeah…

HH: It’s supposed to be a great race.

RP: Yeah, it’s a really fun one. I’ve probably done it a half dozen times over the years. Anyway, Hugh, thank you so much for having me on, and for all you do every day on the air talking about the importance of this election.

HH: Well, I want to get to the Kansas election in particular, but I’ve got to begin by asking you about this Cleveland Plain Dealer story. I see that Caitlin Dunn, your communications director, has married Alex Conant, who I’ve known forever.

RP: Yeah.

HH: And that’s Marco Rubio’s communications director. And so the Plain Dealer worries about the 2016 collision that’s in the offing.

RP: Well, this came up because Caitlin and Alex are both out in Iowa right now. I was with Caitlin last week in Iowa. I spent a couple of days campaigning for our candidate, Joni Ernst, who by the way, would be a terrific United States Senator, and is really in a great position right now to win that seat. But Caitlin and Alex have both committed to being out there in Iowa. They’ve taken a leave from their jobs on the Hill, from Marco Rubio and me, and they’re out there together working it hard. They’re both working in the press shop, and trying to help Joni Ernst get across the line.

HH: But if you end up running for president, and Marco ends up running for president, that sets up sort of a Matalin-Carville within the GOP, doesn’t it?

RP: (laughing) I don’t know. Marco’s a good friend, and you know, we’re happy to have our communications folks married to each other now. But look, there’s going to be lots of time to talk about 2016, and probably, there’s some real competition there, because I think it will be wide open. And it might be more wide open on the Democratic side than people are saying.

HH: Let me ask you before we turn to the Senate races, what’s the last day you think you have to decide whether or not to go? Is it December? Is it January? Is it February?

RP: Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s not until next year sometime, and I think that’s true with everybody. You know, as you know, Jeb Bush and Marco and others have not decided, yet, and I think they’re probably waiting until after the first of the year.

HH: Now let’s turn to…

RP: But my focus…

HH: Go ahead…

RP: Yeah, as you know, my focus not just this year, but the past two years, has been on 2014, because we have a good chance this year to change the majority in the Senate if we can win Iowa and some of these other states that you and I have talked about. And it turns out you know, we’ve got good candidates this year. We’ve had a good message out there. And we have a chance of actually getting the net six new Senate seats on the Republican side to be able to change the majority, which I think is incredibly important for our country right now. I think it changes the dynamic in Washington, and begins to get the country back on track.

HH: You know, I’m going to make my last two contributions to Dan Sullivan in Alaska and Cory Gardner in Colorado. People know about those races. But I wanted to ask you on today to talk about Kansas…

RP: Yes.

HH: …because NBC/Marist poll yesterday came out and showed your colleague, Pat Roberts, who’s running for his fourth term. He’s a great senator. He’s on Ag, he’s been the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, knows all about ISIS, but that Kansas is restless, and Harry Reid has talked the Democrat into not running, and therefore, this independent, alleged independent, Greg Orman, is ten points up on Pat Roberts. What does the NRSC and you and every one of your colleagues do to get Pat Roberts back in the black?

RP: Well, I think that poll might be an outlier from what I hear, and not consistent with other polling, both public polling and internal polling. So it’s probably closer than that. But having said that, it’s an important seat for us. Kansas, as you know, is a reliable red state. And yet we have a situation now where an independent is running not indicating whether he would be a Democrat or a Republican. In other words, he’s saying that he won’t tell people who he’s going to organize with. He has run before for this seat in the Democratic primary as a Democrat. So it’s an interesting race. Pat Roberts is a good guy, as you know. He’s got a lot of goodwill among his colleagues because he has been an effective senator. He’s also someone who is Kansas through and through, you know, born and raised, and was in the House of Kansas. I served with him when he was in the House of Representatives, and now has been a senator from Kansas representing that state well in terms of him being a good red, Republican state. So my hope is that we’ll see Pat come back, because I think he’s a great senator for the state of Kansas.

HH: Let me talk a little bit as well about North Carolina, which is the only other state in which I think Republicans are underperforming expectations – Kansas and North Carolina. I think we’re going to win Georgia, I think the Leader’s going to win handily in Kentucky, and I think you’ve got six or seven that are lined up, maybe even Scott Brown getting over the finish line, maybe even Ed Gillespie or Mike McFadden. But North Carolina is the gap state. Thom Tillis down a couple, maybe three points. How do you close that gap, Rob Portman?

RP: Well, I think you do it in part from beginning to level the playing field on the funding. You know, money’s not everything in politics, but as you know, Hugh, it helps. And he’s been outspent probably two, maybe two and a half to one. And I think that’s been one reason that we see this gap in some of the public polling. But even the polls today that I saw in the RCP average indicated within the margin of error. In other words, it’s really too close to call right now. But I do think that Thom, who’s a great candidate, needs to have a little help in terms of the fundraising side. We’re providing that from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but these days, we’re up against some of the big spenders in the Democratic side. I don’t know if you saw the Wall Street Journal editorial last week, and it said it well that while Harry Reid criticizes the Republican Party major donors like the Koch Brothers, he is quietly been amassing unprecedented amount of money from wealthy people in some of these outside groups, including his own PAC, and using is very effectively in states like North Carolina to keep the playing field, in terms of the amount of money being spent tilted toward the Democrats. So we need to at least be able to close that gap somewhat to get our message out. But look, I think Thom is likely to win this race for two reasons. One, you’ve probably looked at his background. He has been a very popular speaker of the House in North Carolina. He’s a businessperson, but he understands how jobs are created, not just from his business background, but through his career where he got his college degree when he was 37 years old. He was already a partner at Price Waterhouse. He’s been in politics for the last several years, but he has really at his core a guy that’s a job creator. And second, that state, as you know, is more Republican these days. In fact, Mitt Romney won the state. He didn’t win every state, including my own state of Ohio, but he did win North Carolina. And so on issues like the debt, the deficit and job creation, and certainly Obamacare, I think Thom has a big advantage in terms of the issues.

HH: Last couple of questions, Senator, on Ebola. There is a report today that the first unannounced, or unanticipated case in Europe has arisen, a Spanish nurse who took care of a priest who came back from West Africa with the virus, has caught it from the priest. And there are worries about a child in Florida today. And this generally, and I’ll talk to Dan Balz about this later from the Washington Post today. This worry that the country is not on top of this, and that the President is responding in a less than vigorous fashion by scaling up incrementally as opposed to throwing everything at it, what do you think about the country’s response to containment at this point?

RP: Well, Hugh, I’ve been talking about this for the last month, because I do think that we have been behind the curve. I think we should have been more aggressive in responding initially in Africa. I think we should have been more aggressive in responding to the border screening, both exit screening and entry screening. Specifically for the past few weeks, I’ve been calling for what’s called active screening rather than passive screening. As you may know, when people come into this country from West Africa, the Customs and Border Patrol is permitted to look to see if they see any symptoms, and then take the people aside and perhaps have them be in a quarantine situation. But they are not actively screening, meaning asking the simple question, have you been in a place where there has been an outbreak of Ebola? Have you been around anyone who’s had Ebola? Where exactly are you from and do you have any family members who have been involved or certainly infected with Ebola? So just simple questions that they aren’t being asked, and if those questions were asked and answered honestly, then I think we could avoid even some of the issues we’ve had already, including the case of Texas.

HH: Should we be looking at travel bans, Senator?

RP: Well, I think we have to be more aggressive. And what I’ve been urging the CDC to do first, Hugh, is simply to require that a Customs and Border Patrol officer asks these questions that are called active screening questions, to ensure that we are diverting people over to, and then they go to the CDC, by the way, and they get further tested, and then they can be put in a quarantine situation, because I do believe that this is a serious threat not just to Africa, where we should be doing more, but also to other countries, including the United States. So I’m very concerned that we don’t have an active enough strategy, and we have not been as a country doing enough to help Africa and also to protect our own citizens here.

HH: Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, it is always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, Senator.

End of interview.


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