Updated: 4:13 p.m.
Now that Rob Portman has taken himself out of the picture for a run for a third term, a brawl may be brewing in Ohio Republican circles to take his place.
There seems to be an assumption out in Punditry Land that this will be a safe seat for the GOP in 2022 – an open seat because of the somewhat dubious belief that Ohio has turned red. Red now; red forever.
Assumptions, though, are dangerous things in politics. Events intervene. Stuff happens. What looks like a sure thing now may not be so certain in 2022.
Still, there's no doubt that Republicans should be optimistic.
Last November, Donald Trump won Ohio by eight percentage points – the first time since 1960 that Ohio did not go to the winner of the presidential election.
The Ohio GOP has skunked the Democrats in non-judicial statewide contests for over a decade, with the lone exception being the senior senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown.
Too bad for the Democrats that Brown can't clone himself and run for Portman's seat, too.
Portman was re-elected in 2016 by a whopping 21 percentage point margin over former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland after running a flawless, textbook campaign. Trump was on the ballot in Ohio that year too; and he won by only eight percentage points.
It’s probably safe to say that whoever the 2022 nominee for Portman is, he or she won't match the kind of numbers Portman put up in 2016.
So, what's the early line-up look like? I see at least 12 potential candidates on the GOP side and eight or so on the Democratic side. Here they are:
The arch-conservative congressman with the crazy quilt district that winds from near Lorain all the way to Wapakoneta, carefully skirting any major urban areas where Democratic voters lurk, was considered the early favorite. That was until his spokesman told Cleveland.com, "Jordan is solely focused on representing the great people of Ohio's Fourth District, and will not be running to fill the seat of retiring Senator Rob Portman."
The former two-term state treasurer has been pretty quiet since leaving office two years ago. He ran against Sherrod Brown in 2012 and finished with a respectable 45% of the vote. He was all set to run against Brown again in 2018 when he suddenly dropped out of the race. He's only 43 and still has some tread on his tires. But out of sight, out of mind.
He's been on social media for months now, beating up on Gov. Mike DeWine for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the state's economy. Everything he has said or done for nearly a year now points to mounting a primary challenge to DeWine next year. But Renacci, a Northeast Ohio Republican, has pulled the old switcheroo before. In 2017, he declared his candidacy for Ohio governor, but early in the campaign he switched to the U.S. Senate race after Mandel took himself out of the running. He ran against Brown in 2018 and didn't do badly, ending up with 47% of the vote. He might be considering jumping from governor to Senate once again.
Not going to happen. There was some early buzz in Ohio GOP circles that Lt. Gov. Jon Husted might be lured into the race. But Husted squelched that Wednesday with a tweet saying that he won't run for Portman's seat and plans to run with Gov. Mike DeWine for re-election in 2022. The former Ohio House Speaker and Secretary of State has been a loyal second banana to DeWine, who says he is going to run for re-election. Husted would be the natural candidate to follow DeWine into the governor's office.
He's been a Republican congressman from a sprawling central and southern Ohio district since 2010. Of all the possible contenders, Stivers might be the most Portman-like in his approach to his job. Like Portman, he prides himself on being a conservative who can work with colleagues on the other side of the aisle and find common ground. Of course, he is untested as a statewide candidate.
The former Ohio State Buckeyes football coach (2001-2010) has been president of Youngstown State University since 2014. Word is he may have some political ambitions. Hey, if Tommy Tuberville, one of the worst coaches in the history of University of Cincinnati football, can get elected to the Senate from Alabama, why not Tressel? When Tressel coached the Buckeyes, they beat the hated Michigan Wolverines eight times. That's worth something, I guess.
Other Potential GOP Candidates
Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken; 2nd District Congressman Brad Wenstrup; J.D. Vance, the Middletown-born author of Hillbilly Elegy; Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose; Congressman Mike Turner of Dayton; and Congressman Bill Johnson, whose district includes 18 eastern and southeastern Ohio counties.
This one gets a little complicated. There are many Ohio Democrats who believe that Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, would be the strongest possible candidate for Portman's seat. And Whaley announced recently that she won't run for re-election next year. But she seems to be more focused on running for governor. Whaley made a pact with Mike DeWine in August 2019 to fight for a package of gun reform laws after a mass shooting in Dayton left nine dead and 17 wounded. Now she believes DeWine has broken his promise by not standing up to the pro-gun Republicans in the Ohio legislature. She's highly motivated to run for governor. We shall see.
The Cincinnati mayor, who is term-limited out this year, has been laying the groundwork for a run for Ohio governor. But he's being talked about as a potential Senate candidate. He and Whaley are close friends and political allies; they'd probably like to avoid going head-to-head in a Democratic primary.
I've heard from reliable sources that the northeast Ohio Democratic congressman had told both Whaley and Cranley some time ago that he plans to run for governor. But Ryan – who has a long track record of pulling in the votes of blue collar, conservative voters who gave Donald Trump a win in Ohio – might be re-thinking that, now that Portman is out of the picture. In fact, he recently sent a fundraising email to his supporters with the subject line, "I'm thinking about running for US Senate."
Yes, the doctor in the white lab coat who was Mike DeWine's Health Department director in the early months of the pandemic, is a Democrat. She helped out in the Obama campaign of 2008. She was the target of vitriol from COVID-deniers and anti-DeWine Republicans in the legislature and left office, seemingly fed up with the nastiness of politics. But she was something of a folk figure in Ohio, enormously popular and there are many Ohio Democrats who think she could be the breath of fresh air Ohio voters have been looking for.
The state representative from Akron is minority leader of the Ohio House and one of the most prominent African-American political leaders in the state. She could be a formidable candidate, particularly among Black voters in Northeast Ohio.
The Franklin County Recorder is considered an up-and-comer in Ohio Democratic politics, despite losing a special election in Ohio's 12th Congressional District in 2018. Party leaders think O'Connor has a high ceiling as a future candidate.
Why not? Pepper resigned as Ohio Democratic Party chairman last month, but no one believes his political career is over. The former Cincinnati council member and Hamilton County commissioner has run for statewide office twice before – for state auditor in 2010 and Ohio attorney general in 2014. He lost both times. But after nearly six years as state party chairman, he has learned all there is to know about every corner of the state; and is a tireless campaigner.