Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement Monday that he would not run for reelection sent shockwaves through GOP circles, as Republicans grappled with losing a senator with his stature and history of winning campaigns.
Portman’s decision leaves a wide-open Senate race in 2022, when Republicans will be looking to win control of the chamber.
“I think everyone is just trying to get their hands around it right now,” Ohio GOP consultant Curt Steiner said.
“We’ve gone from a seat where the Republicans would be heavily favored to one that could be somewhat uncertain,” Steiner later added. “In the aftermath of a bombshell like this, most people are really just guessing.”
Ohio has a long history of conservative senators who’ve worked across the aisle, including George V. Voinovich and now-Gov. Mike DeWine. In losing Portman, many establishment Republicans in the state worry that the race to replace him could signal the end of such pragmatic politics and mark the beginning of an era in which conservative firebrands, such as Rep. Jim Jordan, could become the symbol of the party.
Ensuring the seat stays in GOP hands may be a tougher task without Portman’s name recognition and sizable campaign war chest. Portman’s campaign had $4.6 million as of Sept. 30. But Republicans are confident they will prevail.
“The 2022 election in Ohio starts today and Republicans will hold that seat,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott said in a statement. Scott, a Florida Republican, told reporters Monday evening at the Capitol that Portman’s retirement was a “big loss” but that the party would recruit formidable candidates.
Democrats, though, believe they have a shot.
“Is Ohio still a 50/50 state? No it’s not,” said Justin Barasky, a senior adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who managed Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s successful reelection campaign in 2018.
“But is it still a winnable state? Absolutely,” Barasky said.
David Leland, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman who now serves in the Ohio House, said Portman’s decision “changes everything.”
“Sen. Portman was going to be a very strong candidate, and he had a really intimidating record as far as his ability to do fundraising. Now everything is in flux,” he said.
Democrats expect Republicans will have to contend with a nasty and costly primary to replace Portman. Republicans have a deep political bench and a long list of potential Senate candidates, which includes members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Rep. Steve Stivers, the former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, is considering a Senate run, according to people familiar with his thinking. Stivers criticized former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection but did not vote to impeach him.
Jordan, who has built a national profile as a staunch Trump ally, could make a bid for the seat. But he has also long eyed the Judiciary Committee chairmanship, which could be within reach if Republicans retake the House in 2022. Other potential GOP candidates from the House include Bill Johnson, an Air Force veteran first elected in 2010, and Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
Three GOP statewide officials are potential candidates to watch: Lt. Gov. Jon A. Husted, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Attorney General Dave Yost. The Cincinnati Enquirer also named Jordan, Ohio GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and author J.D. Vance as potential contenders.
Barasky noted that Democrats could have a much smaller field, mitigating the risk of a problematic primary. But Portman’s exit could also expand the Democratic slate, causing some who were eyeing the governor’s race to shift to the Senate race, such as Rep. Tim Ryan or Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
Ryan, who lost a long-shot bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and is at risk of losing his House seat in redistricting, tweeted Monday that he’s considering a Senate run. Whaley told CQ Roll Call in a text message that she has “gotten a lot of encouragement” and will make a decision about her next steps for 2022 “in the coming weeks.”
Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, a former Hamilton County commissioner, is also considered a potential candidate. And former state Rep. Kathleen Clyde, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2018, tweeted Monday, “I will do everything I can to make sure our next Senator, no matter whom she might be, stands up for all Ohioans.”
A red state?
Republicans believe they would hold an edge in an open race, given the Buckeye State’s rightward shift in recent years. In 2016, Trump won Ohio by 8 points while Portman cruised to reelection over former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland by 21 points. Trump carried the state by 8 points again in 2020.
Thomas Sutton, a political science professor at Baldwin Wallace University, said Republicans will likely take Trump’s expanded support in the state last fall — he grew his winning margin from 2016 by about 30,000 votes — as a sign that Ohio is safe for the party.
“The demographics tell the whole story,” Sutton said. “The only real growth is in the Columbus area. We’re not like Georgia or North Carolina. We are like most of the Midwest where people are getting older and whiter and more conservative.”
Part of the reason Trump expanded his margin in Ohio, Sutton said, is because Joe Biden all but wrote off the state, paying very little attention to it until later in the campaign. The Democratic Senate candidate, he said, “will need a lot of resources to counteract the Republican running against them.” But outside money, he said, has not been focused on Ohio in recent years.
Whether that changes in 2022 remains to be seen, and that could also depend on the eventual nominees. Trump’s victories in the state could bolster a staunch Trump ally in the GOP primary. But it could also signal the end of lawmakers like Portman, who was reliably conservative but also capable of deal-making.
Void in the Senate
That deal-making has been more difficult in Congress lately, which factored into Portman’s decision not to run for reelection.
“I don’t think any Senate office has been more successful in getting things done, but honestly, it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision,” he said in a statement Monday.
Portman brought a unique blend of legislative and executive experience to the Senate, and he is currently the only senator who has served in a presidential Cabinet.
After 12 years in the House, Portman joined the George W. Bush administration in 2005, first as U.S. trade representative and later as the director of the Office Management and Budget. Portman was first elected to the Senate in 2010.
“He is one of the best retail politicians, and likable retail politicians, and policy wonks,” Ohio GOP strategist Michael Hartley said. “And that combination is rare.”
Portman is often found in bipartisan “gangs,” and on Sunday he participated in a bipartisan call with the Biden administration on a new pandemic relief package.
But Portman has also been a reliable Republican vote while in Congress.
Since 2011, he has voted the same way a majority of Senate Republicans voted 90.7 percent of the time, slightly below the 91.7 percent average for the period, according to CQ Vote Watch.
On votes where Trump’s position was known, Portman voted with Trump 97.7 percent of the time from 2017 through 2020, slightly more than the Senate GOP average of 96.6 percent. During President Barack Obama’s last six years in office, Portman supported his position 57.8 percent of the time, compared with a Senate GOP average presidential unity score of 53.4 percent.
Herb Jackson, Paul V. Fontelo and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.