(Bloomberg) -- On a warm October Friday in downtown Cleveland, a small crowd of protesters chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Wall Street values have got to go." A man hoisted a homemade sign saying Corporate America loves Rob Portman .
Although the sign was meant as a dig against the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, the love affair doesn't bother Ohio voters. Most polls show the former six-term congressman from Cincinnati with a commanding lead over
Democrat Lee Fisher, the state's lieutenant governor.
A landslide victory on Nov. 2 by Portman would defy the trend in a year in which Tea Party-backed candidates have put the Washington establishment on the defensive. Portman, a former U.S. Trade Representative whose political career began in the White House, is running in a state that has lost tens of thousands of jobs to foreign competition. And he's benefited from donations from corporate interests, including executives at American Financial Group Inc. and H.J. Heinz Co., that have helped him raise more than $16 million.
"Mr. Portman has a lot of IOUs from folks he helped when he was trade czar," says Tim Burga, chief of staff for the Ohio chapter of the AFL-CIO.
Early on, Portman, 54, focused his campaign on job creation, depriving Fisher, who oversees Ohio's economic development, of ownership of the issue voters say they care about the most. Portman's almost $10 million advantage in campaign cash has also helped.
'Prime Role' Seen
Portman is poised to return to Washington as a proven dealmaker with close ties to lawmakers in both parties.
"He'll play a prime role in the U.S. Senate from day one," says Gene Beaupre , a political science professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. "Where he goes from there is just a matter of things lining up correctly."
Portman, who also served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, could help shepherd negotiations over trade deals and in any talks to cut spending or raise taxes to trim the federal budget deficit .
That may help explain why U.S. companies are lining up behind him.
He has raised more than $1.7 million from business political action committees alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He is the top recipient of contributions from insurance industry employees, with donations exceeding
$575,000, and ranks first in money from commercial bank employees, with more than $220,000, according to the same data. He raised an additional $697,000 from employees of securities and investment firms and more than $1 million from lawyers and lobbyists.
Employees of Cincinnati-based American Financial Group and their families are Portman's biggest source of donations. Employees of the firm, which owns insurance and investment companies, have given Portman more than $125,000. Chairman Carl H. Lindner, a Republican donor, and his son Carl H. Lindner
III, the company's co-chief executive officer, each gave Portman's campaign the maximum $4,800 donation.
Other supporters include John Thain, chief executive officer of New York-based CIT Group Inc.; Walter W. Bettinger II, CEO of San Francisco-based Charles Schwab Corp.; and William Johnson, CEO of Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz.
Portman, born and raised in Cincinnati, has roots in business himself. His father started Portman Equipment, a forklift dealership, with five workers. The company now employs 350 people in four states, according to its website.
Ties to Bush
After earning an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a law degree from the University of Michigan, Portman practiced international trade law at Patton Boggs, a Washington-based firm with strong political connections. In
1989 he took a job as associate White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush and later served as director of the Office of Legislative Affairs before making a run for Congress.
During 12 years in the House, Portman wrote legislation to increase contribution limits on 401(k) plans and expand pensions offered by small businesses. A member of the tax- writing Ways and Means Committee, he helped pass the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and shortened the window on long-term capital gains from 18 months to 12 months.
Portman served as trade representative, then budget director under President George W. Bush . He doesn't highlight that part of his resume in stump speeches, though he's benefiting from his Bush family ties. American Crossroads , a group organized with the help of former Bush political adviser Karl Rove, has spent more than $820,000 on Portman's race.
'Trade Means Jobs'
Portman also glosses over his role in marshalling votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
"Trade means jobs," he told business leaders at an event in Columbus, adding that Ohio has boosted exports for the last eight years and ranks seventh among the exporting states.
His opponents say more than 110,000 Ohioans have lost their jobs as the result of trade since 2004, according to the Ohio Jobs & Family Services Department. Since 2000 the state has lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.