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In tough reelection fight, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s first TV ads focus on efforts to combat heroin epidemic

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) speaks during a news conference on the opioid epidemic May 19 on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), running for reelection in one of the most important contests in the battle for the Senate majority, is going up with his first TV ads of 2016, three commercials that seek to highlight his record fighting Ohio's severe prescription drug and heroin addiction problems.

The commercials, shared with The Washington Post and slated to hit the airwaves Wednesday, are in line with a broader Senate Republican strategy to talk mostly about local issues this year, in order to create some distance from the top of the ticket. Senate GOP officials have instructed Republican senators to run as though they are running for sheriff. Many dodged and diverted when recently asked whether they would campaign with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The ads also come at a time when politicians are increasingly talking about the nation's heroin epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, and more than 8,200 people died in 2013. Concerns about prescription painkiller addiction are also on the rise.

In one of the new spots, Portman explains his effort to combat drug addiction through legislation. In the other two, people who say they have been deeply affected by heroin addiction praise Portman's work.

"Working together with Democrats and Republicans, I passed legislation to help break the grip of addiction," Portman says in a spot called "Wildfire." "By investing in prevention, treatment, and recovery, empowering law enforcement and stopping the over-prescribing of painkillers, we can turn the tide."

In March, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill co-sponsored by Portman that was designed to reduce the number of deaths from heroin use. The legislation authorized Congress to spend $725 million to intensify drug treatment programs, including for people in prison, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Portman's work on the issue spans as far back as the 1990s, when he was a member of the House. In 1997, he sponsored a bill to set up long-term plans to fight and treat youth substance abuse, among other things. The bill became a law that year.

The following year, he spearheaded a bill that passed the House and would have created a national media campaign aimed at reducing drug abuse.

Ohio has been hit particularly hard by the heroin epidemic. In one of Portman's new ads, a woman who identifies herself as Gina Bonaminio says: "By 18 I was addicted to heroin. And I'm not alone." The Lakewood, Ohio, woman adds: "Fortunately, leaders like Rob Portman are bringing Democrats and Republicans together passing important legislation and giving hope to people like me."

In the third commercial, Wayne Campbell of Pickerington, Ohio, says: "We lost a son to this heroin epidemic. It could happen to absolutely everyone." He praises Portman for starting a local anti-drug coalition in the 1990s.

The ads are part of a previously announced $15 million reservation. The campaign declined to say how much was being spent on the first three spots. It said they would air statewide.

Portman, as pointed out in a January story, voted against a broad government spending bill last year which included money for fighting heroin addiction. He pushed for those provisions. Portman criticized the overall bill for containing too much spending and too many gimmicks, in his view.

If Democrats hold the White House, they will need to gain four seats to win back the Senate majority. Ohio is a central front in the fight for control of the Senate. The state is a quadrennial presidential battleground and expected to be one of the most expensive on the map. Democrats have nominated former governor Ted Strickland to take on Portman.

Although Portman is expected to try to run a hyper-local campaign, he will have to contend with Democratic efforts to tie him to Trump and many of the controversial things the mogul has said on the campaign trail.

“I’m going to have my own campaign out there and do my own thing,” Portman told The Washington Post recently when asked whether he would campaign with Trump. “So I don’t know that that’ll happen. But if he wants to help, that’s fine.”

Updated at 10:10 a.m.