The unexpected retirement of Republican Sen. Rob Portman has set off a frantic scramble in Ohio, leading numerous Republicans and a handful of Democratic lawmakers to consider making a run at the now open seat.
The race, beyond being key to control of the Senate, will have significant implications for a state that has been steadily moving to the right for a decade and will speak volumes about the state of each party.
For Republicans, the race represents a chance to further assert their dominance in the onetime battleground, signaling yet again that a state former President Barack Obama won twice is no longer a welcome place for Democrats. But the party is also in a precarious position after the tumultuous departure of former President Donald Trump. A contentious primary for a coveted Senate seat could further exacerbate these deep fissures.
For Democrats, the seat offers a chance to prove that a member of their party not named Sherrod Brown can win a statewide election in the Buckeye State. But the race, alongside one for the governor’s mansion in 2022, also threatens to expose the damage that years of Republican victories have done to the Democratic bench in Ohio, a reality that could allow younger talent to test their statewide ability.
“It changes the landscape,” Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat seen as a top contender for the Senate seat, said of the Portman decision. “I don’t think people are very happy [in Ohio], in terms of their families, their communities and how they feel about their future. And in Ohio, the only people who have been in charge are Republicans. So I think that gives us a great opportunity.”
‘These seats don’t open up very often’
Republicans have dominated Ohio ever since Obama won the state during his reelection bid in 2012. The party swept statewide office races in 2014. Two years later, Trump carried the state by 8 points while Portman easily beat former Gov. Ted Strickland in his bid for reelection. The party again showed its strength in 2018, electing Mike DeWine to his first term as governor. And last year, Trump once more carried Ohio.
This dominance on both the congressional and statewide level has created a deep bench of Republican office holders, many of whom quickly sprang into action at the chance to run for an open Senate seat.
“These seats don’t open up very often,” said Mike Hartley, a longtime Republican strategiest in Ohio. “So if you are in any position and have ever wanted to do it, you do it.”
Hartley later joked that when national Republicans called him on Monday to talk about who is thinking about filling the seat, he simply said, “Every name you could possibly think of.”
The most significant divide in Republicans seeking the job will be between the state’s congressional delegation and the statewide elected officials.
At least four members of Ohio’s congressional delegation are considering running, but the person seen as the best positioned is Rep. Jim Jordan, a staunch conservative with deep ties to Trump. Reps. Steve Stivers, Brad Wenstrup and Mike Turner are also considering bids, people close to the process said.
Because these lawmakers come from reliably Republican districts aided by gerrymandering in the state, they are more conservative than others considering running for the seat, and none more so than Jordan. But the congressional candidates won’t clear the field. Multiple statewide elected Republicans in Ohio are considering a run, including Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
Unlike Jordan and the other congressional lawmakers, Ohio’s statewide elected officials, while conservative, have not been as deeply devoted to Trump and, at times, have been seen as out of step with the Trump base of the party.
Both Husted, who has been an elected official in Ohio since 2001, and LaRose, who served as a Green Beret in Iraq and is a former member of the state Senate, would be seen as more establishment choices, in line with DeWine, who has, at times, been a Trump critic. The two have been critical of Trump in the past, including when Husted was heckled at a Trump rally for urging attendees to put on masks to combat the coronavirus.
“In my humble opinion, it starts with Congressman Jim Jordan,” said Mike Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life. “He has an opportunity to be either a king or a king maker.”
The Trump factor will loom large over the race. The former president is so close to Jordan he gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can bestow on a civilian, shortly before he left office. And Trump has been critical of DeWine, especially after the Ohio governor broke with other Republicans to say Biden won the election.
And there is no indication that Trump’s grip on the party — especially on the right — will weaken over the next two years.
“I live in rural Ohio, 25 miles from the Capitol. There are five Trump signs or flags that remain on my street,” said Colton Henson, a Republican operative in the state. “If a candidate thinks there won’t be a Trump litmus test for many Republican voters, they may want to rethink strategy.”
Are Democrats still viable in Ohio?
Democrats face a markedly different issue. While the party is largely unified in Ohio, significant losses in the last eight years have diminished the bench of talent in the state and left the party searching for big names who could mount campaigns for statewide office.
“It is a good opportunity to show Democrats can be viable in the state,” said Aryeh Alex, the executive director of the Ohio House Democratic Caucus.
In order to succeed, however, some Democrats believe the infighting inside the Republican Party needs to continue, hoping it further splits the party ahead of the general election.
“The Republican Party is having such a massive civil war,” said former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper. “They have more of a bench, but the way they have won through gerrymandering has also shaped the politics of their office holders and [the possible candidates] from Congress are much further to the right because they have been living in these gerrymandered districts.”
The two Democrats seen as top candidates for the Senate seat are Whaley and US Rep. Tim Ryan, both of whom said they were considering their options in the wake of the Portman news. But the list of candidates does not stop there.
Danny O’Connor, the county recorder in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, told CNN he is considering mounting a campaign. Some Democrats are looking to recruit Dr. Amy Acton, who rose to prominence as DeWine’s public health director as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Other Democrats have looked at Emilia Sykes, the young, Black minority leader of the Ohio House of Representatives, as someone who could mount a historic campaign and motivate Democrats.
For Ohio Democrats, the model for someone who can win statewide is Brown, the populist senator who, despite being an avowed liberal, has found success in the state by relating to both independents and Republicans. While that legacy has led some in the state to believe nominating candidates like Brown is the surest way to win, the last decade has demonstrated that his appeal is not only unique, but also difficult to replicate.
“I’m considering this because Ohioans have been left behind time and time again,” said O’Connor. “I’m from a small town that gets smaller every year. I know the decency of our people but also that our niceness isn’t going to put food on the table. We need someone who will fight, scrap and claw for every worker who hasn’t had a pay raise or is looking for work.”
Other possible candidates argued that trying to be Brown is what Ohio Democrats have done for the past decade — and it hasn’t worked.
“One thing that we have an opportunity to do is show that with diverse candidates, with women and people of color, there is a pathway to win,” said Sykes, who told CNN she is considering a bid. “What we are learning is that when you put women on the ballot, women win. When you put people of color on the ballot, we win.”
Sykes pointed to Melody Stewart, a Black Democrat who won a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court in 2018.
Whaley made a similar case, too, noting that many of the Democratic losses over the last decade have come when Democrats put up White male candidates.
“We don’t need to be insane as a party,” she said. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Certainly, trying something new would be good after decades of trying things the other way.”
And while almost all Democrats argued that the path to victory comes through organizing the base and creating excitement, people like Shannon Hardin, the president of the Columbus City Council, backed up Sykes and Whaley.
“We have to get real organizing and real voter registration efforts in urban communities and in some of our rural areas,” said Hardin. “A Black man, middle named Hussein, last name Obama, won this state in 2012. It is still right, we have a lot of work to do, we have some cultural hills to climb here, but I think with the right candidate and that message on the working class, I think we have a real shot at this thing.”