Sen. Rob Portman's decision not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate surprised politicos on both sides of the aisle, who now see a much clearer path to high office.
“It’s a maybe once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Bob Taft, “an open Senate seat in a competitive state like Ohio.”
As a former GOP congressman, two-term secretary of state and governor, Taft would know. The nature of Portman’s profile—understated, pragmatic—raises an important question for his party: Do they want a traditional Republican in the mold of the outgoing senator, or a more conservative, bombastic figure modeled on the former president?
Portman’s timing gives potential candidates more than a year to mull their bid, but already big names like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Attorney General Dave Yost and Lieutenant Governer Jon Husted have bowed out.
Taft says whoever the Ohio GOP does ends up choosing could be an important indicator for the party ahead of the 2024 presidential race.
“If out of the primary comes someone very far to the right, [and] they don’t succeed in the general election, then that’s going to send a message about the future of the party,” Taft says. “What happens in Ohio in the primary next year will definitely have an impact.”
Even before President Trump’s term in office, Portman was beginning to seem like an artifact from an earlier political era. He made his bones with policy expertise built up over decades in government, and he was well-known for working across the aisle.
GovTrack puts Portman near the middle of its ideological spectrum, less conservative even than Arizona Democrat Kristen Sinema. The Lugar Center’s bipartisanship index gives Portman the fourth-highest score among senators.
But it’s unclear if that’s a winning profile for the next candidate in a primary election where more conservative voices often hold sway. Shawn Parker, who heads up the Dublin Republican Club, says at the grass roots level, Ohio Republicans haven’t parted ways with Trump.
“You know, Donald Trump hasn’t surfaced since he left office, but I think we all know that Donald Trump is going to show up pretty soon,” Parker says.
Parker believes the long stretch between now and the primary will have a moderating effect. But if the election were sooner?
“If it were to happen tomorrow, you’re going to find someone from further to the right step in and be wholeheartedly endorsed and win the election," Parker predicts.
Although Jordan has announced he won’t seek the seat, Parker thinks the firebrand Trump-supporting congressman would win handily if the race were held in the next month or two.
Republican strategist Mike Gonidakis sees Trump’s ongoing influence as well, and argues candidates who have opposed him in the past would have a difficult time with primary voters.
Although Republicans dominate Ohio politics, there isn’t an obvious frontrunner for Portman's seat yet. Former treasurer – and twice-unsuccessful Senate candidate – Josh Mandel has cash, but he’s been out of politics for a few years. State GOP chairwoman Jane Timken has built-in connections around Ohio, but has never held elected public office.
Congressmen have federal campaign committees, but could have a tough time scaling up for a statewide campaign. Statewide officeholders might know how to win, but they’d be starting from scratch because their state campaign dollars can’t be used in a federal race.
Gonidakis says both groups are also weighing the risk of running against the relative safety of seeking reelection.
“Do I leave my current job with the likelihood of getting reelected to run for the United States Senate, where I’ll have no money?” Gonidakis poses hypothetically. “And I think what you’re seeing is, our statewides are saying, 'I can serve Ohio better in my current role.'”
Otterbein University political scientist La Trice Washington explains Portman’s success came from notching legislative wins while adhering to a set of understood Republican values. But Trump’s presidency has altered the landscape, and now Republican voters will need to decide what their party represents.
“Is it about ideology, is it about merits of various legislative measures or policies? Or is it purely about power?” Washington asks.
The open Senate seat has prompted a broader than usual array of Democrats to consider a bid, too. But they’re likely also thinking about the former president, who won Ohio by eight points in back-to-back elections.
“We have to be honest,” Washington says. “Ohio is disproportionately a red state, right? We’ve had purple moments, but it’s an uphill battle for the Democratic Party.”