Politics

Rob Portman Opens Up an Ohio Senate Seat in 2022

And possibly also the gates of hell.

Portman gestures with his hands while seated in a Senate hearing room
Sen. Rob Portman on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Joshua Roberts/Pool/Getty Images

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman announced Monday morning that he would not run for a third term. He is the third Republican senator, along with North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, from a vaguely swingy state to retire and set up an open Senate seat in 2022.

For Democrats upon hearing this news, two thoughts come to mind in precisely this order: Open seat opportunity! and then, shortly thereafter, Oh, God, Jim Jordan.

Senate Republicans will lose one of their most effective and least showy members with Portman’s retirement. A former six-term congressman, U.S. trade representative, and Office of Management and Budget director, Portman played a central role in trade policy and passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. He’s not a moderate by any means, but he does hail from the party’s diminishing nonconspiratorial wing.

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Can the same be said of his would-be Republican replacement?

With the exception of Sen. Sherrod Brown, who’s been grandfathered in from Ohio’s pure swing-state days and has been blessed to run in the strongly pro-Democratic 2006, 2012, and 2018 cycles, Democrats have seen the once definitive toss-up state slip away from them. Donald Trump won Ohio twice, comfortably, and a Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial race there since 2006.

Democrats shouldn’t accept, and have some reason to believe they can avoid, the traditional midterm wipeout that follows on winning the presidency. But if the midterm backlash against the governing party does arise, a Democrat winning a statewide race in Ohio will be a tall order.

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And so the Republican field could be substantial. Within hours of Portman’s announcement, two Ohio members, Reps. Mike Turner and Steve Stivers, said they were looking into a Senate run. There’s a seemingly unlimited stock of indistinguishable white men in the Ohio House delegation, present and former, who could join. On the state level, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Attorney General Dave Yost, or Lt. Gov. Jon Husted could run. Former State Treasurer (and defeated Senate candidate) Josh Mandel could give it another go, as could former Rep. (and defeated Senate candidate) Jim Renacci. J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist whom the GOP has tried to recruit in the past, could run.

It’s Jordan, however, who could make the most impact. He’s a national name and one of the president’s most unwavering loyalists, and he could consolidate the Trump wing of the party’s support if the former president chose to endorse him. His candidacy would present a Trump-like conundrum for Democrats: As a leading member of the conspiratorial wing of the party, he could be the most beatable candidate for Democrats in a general election. Most beatable is not the same as beatable, though. And if he won the general election, he’d be an absolute nightmare in the United States Senate, which, unlike the House, empowers each individual member with a full array of tedious parliamentary tools. Jordan will have to balance the prospect of a Senate run with his growing power in the House: If Republicans took back the House in 2022, he would chair the Judiciary Committee and wield subpoena power against the Biden administration.

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Who, meanwhile, is on the Democratic bench? You’ve got Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, whom Democrats have been grooming for higher office, Rep. Tim Ryan, and … um … would LeBron James be interested in taking a $100-million-plus pay cut while he’s still at the top of his game to take a junior slot on the Small Business Committee? Whaley, who’s not running for mayoral reelection, will have to make her choice. Ryan has a history of long shot bids for president and speaker of the House, but not for any office, like governor or senator, that would require him to forgo filing House reelection paperwork and risk losing his plum slot on the Appropriations Committee.

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In his retirement statement on Monday, Portman said that “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.” His decision to eject himself from the horror show he describes has a strong chance of accelerating future horrors. Portman was first elected to the Senate in 2010, two years after Barack Obama won Ohio the first time and two years before Obama won it again. He will leave the Senate six years after Trump won Ohio the first time and two years after he won it again. It’s a different state now, and a great many Ohio Republicans will want a replacement who makes today’s partisan Senate, implacably divided about how it will even start doing its business, look like the golden age of bipartisan compromise.

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