Analysis: Is Now Ohio's Time For A Black Or Woman Candidate For Senate?

Feb 4, 2021

There are two things the voters of Ohio have never done – elect an African American or a woman to the United States Senate.

You can't blame the voters of the Buckeye State for this. No African American has been the nominee of either major political party for a Senate seat; and only one woman – a white woman – has run. And she lost the general election.

That was Democrat Mary Boyle of Cleveland, who became the Democratic nominee in 1998 when Sen. John Glenn retired. But she lost to Republican George Voinovich.

As far as Blacks being elected to the Senate is concerned, Ohio voters are not alone – most states have never had a Black senator. There have been only 11 in the history of the Senate.

The 2022 election in Ohio will be an opportunity for one or both of those things to take place.

The 2022 race will be a rare bird for Ohio – an election where there is an open U.S. Senate seat, thanks to the decision of incumbent Republican Rob Portman not to run.

There are a lot of Ohio Democrats hoping that 2022 will be the year, with a candidate of color – perhaps a Black woman – leading the party into battle for a very important seat in the coming struggle for control of the Senate.

It may be the only way to drive up turnout among African American voters in the state's urban centers – an absolutely critical element if the Democrats hope to have any chance of flipping that Senate seat from red to blue.

"This is an opportunity,'' said Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece, an African American woman. "In order to make a change we have to capture all those folks who came out in huge numbers for Barack Obama in 2008. We need something to light that fire."

A relatively weak turnout in the African American community, particularly in Northeast Ohio, was a major factor in Joe Biden losing Ohio to Donald Trump last fall and a major reason why Democrats have been shut out of statewide elections in Ohio since the Obama surge of 2008.

Reece, a former chair of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus when she was in the Ohio House, said that soon after Portman announced his decision, she has had a barrage of phone calls from Black Democrats around the state and around the country about the open seat – some of them urging her to run.

That's something Reece said she is not going to do – she was just elected to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners last fall and says she is focused on that job.

Alicia Reece, center, with her fellow Hamilton County commissioners Stephanie Summerow Dumas, left, and Denise Driehaus, during Reece's swearing-in ceremony in January.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

But she is hoping that an African American candidate will come forward.

"There's an opportunity to do something here in Ohio similar to what happened in Georgia," Reece said.

On Jan. 5, in a special election for Georgia's two U.S. Senate seats, a massive surge of Black voters in the Atlanta area and places around the state pulled off wins for both Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

It gave the Democrats control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins – 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with the Democratic vice president, Kamala Harris, in place to cast tie-breaking votes.

And Warnock is Black, becoming the third African American in the U.S. Senate, along with Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina.

"What we need is a Stacey Abrams to organize that kind of turnout in Ohio,'' Reece said, referring to the Georgia political strategist credited with crafting a brilliant get-out-the-vote campaign in the special Senate election.

It is very early in the process; the 2022 primary election is more than a year away.

No African Americans have come forward to say they are planning on running, The two most prominently mentioned names on the Democratic side are both women - State Rep. Emilia Sykes, the minority leader of the Ohio House and part of a powerful Akron political family; and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty of Columbus, who has been a member of the U.S. House since 2013.

Former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman hinted at a possible run last month, but, in a tweet earlier this week, the African American who ran Ohio's largest city for 16 years said he decided against it.

There is plenty of time for other African American candidates to emerge.

And the search by the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus to recruit a Black candidate for the Senate will continue.

None of this is to say that the one Ohio Democrat who is apparently committed to running – Rep. Tim Ryan of Trumbull County – could not be a winning candidate. I've said so in a column earlier this week that he could be formidable.

There is little doubt that at least one woman will be running in the 2022 primary. Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken is seriously considering it; and, on the Democratic side, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is among the possible Senate candidates, although she appears to be leaning heavily toward a run for governor. Both Timken and Whaley are white.

Also on the Democratic side, former Ohio Health Department Director Amy Acton, who became a household name in Ohio last year when she was working with Gov. Mike DeWine on the state's coronavirus response, is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate. Acton, who has never run for office before, stepped down from her job at the Columbus Foundation Thursday, saying that she wanted to "carefully explore" the possibility of running.

The field of candidates is far from being set, but one thing is clear – Ohio has an opportunity to make history in the 2022 Senate race.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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