WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s unexpected decision to retire in 2022 means the Buckeye State will have its first open U.S. Senate seat since 2010.
Despite Portman (R-Ohio) announcing last week that he wouldn’t run for a third six-year term because “it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy,” that hasn’t stopped a long list of Ohio politicians from considering running.
Conversations with political insiders across the state make clear that there’s no definitive frontrunner yet to become either major party’s nominee.
Instead, over 20 current, former or potential officeholders have publicly or reportedly expressed interest in running.
Here’s what Spectrum News has learned:
At least seven of Ohio’s current Republican U.S. representatives have indicated they are considering running for Portman’s seat.
In statements released last week, Reps Brad Wenstrup (R, OH-2), Bill Johnson (R, OH-6), Mike Turner (R, OH-10) and Dave Joyce (R, OH-14) each said they were exploring their options.
Sources close to Reps Steve Stivers (R, OH-15) and Anthony Gonzalez (R, OH-16) also said they are considering running, and Rep. Warren Davidson’s (R, OH-8) campaign manager Josh Burton said Davidson is “looking at it very seriously.”
One Ohio Republican consultant with deep knowledge of the state’s political makeup predicted half of the men will run while “half just like having their name out there.”
This consultant, who was granted anonymity to discuss the state of the race candidly, named Johnson and Turner as two members who will probably run.
But the consultant cautioned that running a statewide race is a lot different than running in one congressional district.
“To be a congressman who’s not known outside of your district is a big disadvantage,” the consultant said. “You just have so much ground to cover and Ohio’s so big.”
One U.S. House member who would not have had a name recognition problem is Rep. Jim Jordan (R, OH-4), a fierce defender of former President Donald Trump who has built up a national following through countless media appearances and has been raising millions of dollars in recent years.
As speculation built up last week, Jordan’s campaign released a statement saying he “will not be running to fill the seat of retiring Senator Rob Portman” because he “believes that at this time he is better suited to represent Ohioans in the House of Representatives, where as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, he can advance an America first agenda.”
Some non-congressional Ohio Republicans are also being floated as potential candidates.
Current Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken has told Spectrum News she is considering running, while former Ohio State Treasurer and 2012 Republican Senate nominee Josh Mandel has said in press statements he’s seriously looking into it too.
On Feb. 5, Timken announced she was immediately stepping down from her role as party chair, just weeks after being reelected.
“I will be making an announcement about my future plans in the coming weeks," Timken said, “but trust me when I say I intend to build on our success and continue doing all I can do advance conservative, America First policies to strengthen Ohio."
“I would rank Josh Mandel one, Jane Timken two, then everyone else three,” the Republican consultant said.
Mandel, who also briefly ran for Senate in 2018 before dropping out of the primary, has over $4 million left in his campaign account and did win statewide to become treasurer.
He told the conservative website Breitbart News over the weekend that he thinks “the key is keeping the Trump coalition together.”
Timken, a Harvard graduate who has spent the last few years building relationships across the state as party chair, is well-liked among Ohio Republicans and would allow the party to elevate a woman to its club of male-dominated officeholders.
“She would be a serious candidate,” the consultant said, but cautioned that the vast majority of Republican primary voters aren’t familiar with Timken.
“Ohio’s so big that if you have two candidates, one has run statewide and one hasn’t, I always give the advantage to the one who’s run and won statewide,” the consultant said.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Attorney General Dave Yost, both current statewide officer holders, have said they will not run for Senate.
Other Ohio Republicans who have publicly or reportedly expressed interest include Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, former Rep. Jim Renacci, businessman Bernie Moreno, and investment banker Mike Gibbons.
In her capacity as chairwoman of the party, Timken said in a statement, “Many will consider the opportunity to fill Senator Portman’s position. Republicans will coalesce around the primary winner and I have confidence in the infrastructure of the Ohio Republican Party to deliver on electing a Republican Senator in 2022.”
Congressman Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) is the one current Ohio Democrat in the U.S. House who is seriously considering running for Portman’s Senate seat.
The New York Times reported Monday night that Ryan “plans to run” and "is expected to declare his candidacy by the beginning of March, according to Democrats briefed on his planning.”
In a statement sent to Spectrum News shortly after the Times’ report was published, Ryan said he’s been “encouraged” by the "support, enthusiasm, and commitment” he has received.
“The U.S. Senate needs another working class voice and I’m very serious about the opportunity to continue representing the people of Ohio,” Ryan added.
Though he hasn’t formally launched a campaign, Ryan, who has represented northeast Ohio in Congress for two decades and briefly ran for president in 2019, is already receiving endorsements.
The Ohio chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W) released a letter on Monday endorsing his campaign, were he to run.
Toledo-area Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9), the longest-serving woman in U.S. House history and the dean of Ohio’s congressional delegation, told Spectrum News Monday night that she spoke with Ryan over the weekend.
“He needs no training wheels,” Kaptur said of Ryan. “He’ll bring new energy and drive to the Senate. He’ll deliver for Ohio.”
When Kathy DiCristofaro, chair of the Ohio Democratic Women’s Caucus and vice chair of the Trumbull County Democratic Party, tweeted over the weekend that “Ohio needs leaders like @TimRyan to fight for working people. I’m all In!,” Hillary Clinton retweeted her and added, “You’re right, Kathy!”
Reached by phone last week, DiCristofaro told Spectrum News, “The most talked about, who I’ve talked to in all different parts of the state so far, have been Tim Ryan and Nan Whaley.”
Whaley, the current mayor of Dayton who recently announced she won’t seek another term leading the Gem City, has been seriously considering running for Senate or governor in 2022 after a brief run for governor in 2017.
“I have gotten a lot of encouragement, especially today and will make my decision in the coming weeks,” Whaley told Spectrum News the day Portman announced his retirement.
While Ryan has built up decent name recognition across the state during his time in Congress and his failed presidential campaign, some Democratic insiders question whether Whaley can increase her profile enough to compete in a statewide race.
“Can she bust out of Dayton, Ohio?” one insider, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the race, said.
Two other Ohio Democrats being discussed as potential contenders are former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.
Coleman, the first African-American mayor of Columbus and the longest-serving leader of the city, tweeted on January 27 that, "As a result of calls, emails and out reach, I am considering whether I should be a candidate for the United States Senate. Now is a time to elect a person who has a record of bringing people together to solve tough problems.”
On Feb. 3, the morning after this story was first published, Coleman tweeted, "After serious consideration and discussion with my family, we have decided that I will NOT run for the US SENATE.”
Acton, who gained a national profile while briefing Ohioans about the coronavirus alongside Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, has also shown interest, according to several Ohio Democrats.
When cleveland.com reported last week that Dr. Acton was considering running, Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and wife of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, tweeted, “Imagine Dr. Amy Acton as Ohio’s next U.S. senator. I sure can.”
In a statement released Feb. 4, Acton confirmed she is considering running.
“I am stepping down from my role at The Columbus Foundation in order to carefully consider how I can best be of service at this crucial time,” she said.
Brown, the only Democrat elected statewide in Ohio who’s not a judge, told Spectrum News he has spoken with Acton, Coleman, Ryan and several others about running.
“I like all of those candidates. I would be happy with any of them as a seat mate in the U.S. Senate,” Brown said. “There is some interest among all of them, but some doesn’t mean that they’re likely to run. We’ll see.”
DiCristofaro, the women’s caucus chair who is backing Ryan, said conversations about Acton running were not “serious” yet in her circles, because “people are waiting for something a little bit more solid” to indicate the former health director is sincerely interested.
But DiCristofaro did say, “For someone that you would consider just coming out of left field, never talked about as a candidate in the past, [Acton] has name recognition.”
A well placed source in Ohio Democratic politics, who was granted anonymity to candidly discuss the state of the race, said Acton would bring a “very unique and palpable grassroots support.”
“It just is a rare occasion that someone has this type of very positive name ID in a state as big as Ohio,” the source said. “She has the name ID of someone who usually has been in office for 30 years here.”
Another insider, though, said Acton may be too polarizing for a statewide race, since she faced protests and backlash from Republicans while she encouraged mask-wearing, social distancing and lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic.
The insider said certain Ohio Democrats recognize the need to have a candidate who can appeal to both the party’s base and certain Republicans.
“That’s why you need a Tim Ryan or a Michael Coleman,” the insider said.
David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Democrats have a lot to consider as they attempt to gain back some ground in a state Trump won twice.
“The question is do you want someone who’s known politically already by being in office? Or do you look to an outsider?” Pepper said.
Other Ohio Democrats who have publicly or reportedly expressed interest are Rep. Joyce Beatty (D, OH-3), Franklin County Recorder and former congressional candidate Danny O’Connor, Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, and Pepper.
In a statement, Ohio Democratic Party Communications Director Kirstin Alvanitakis said, “As the state party, we are committed to an open and transparent primary process, and we are always happy to talk with any potential candidates. Beyond that, we're going to decline to comment on any particular individuals. We're focusing on building a strong organization to ensure our eventual nominees have what they need to win.”
Ohio’s 2022 Senate race will help explain the future of politics in both the Buckeye State and the United States.
Though Trump lost his bid for reelection, his two eight-point wins in Ohio signaled the rightward shift voters have taken. Republicans also hold the majority of Ohio’s seats in Congress, the governor’s mansion, and a supermajority in the state legislature.
“I think President Trump remains incredibly popular with Republicans in Ohio,” said Corry Bliss, a GOP operative who ran Portman’s successful 2016 reelection campaign.
Bliss called the Ohio Democratic Party “a laughing stock” and said the party is “out of touch, they don’t win, they can’t win.”
He specifically named Rep. Tim Ryan as a favorable target for the party, if he runs for Senate.
“Every Republican in Ohio is praying that Tim Ryan runs so we can spend two years publicly humiliating him,” Bliss said.
Ohio Democrats insist they have more of a chance, but one insider acknowledged that winning over Portman’s Senate seat will “be an uphill battle.”
Still, some party members are hoping they can tap into the likes of Ryan or Whaley to achieve what only Brown has been able to do in recent years for Democrats — appeal to a wide enough base of Ohioans to win statewide office.
“We often hear we don’t have a bench of candidates, and that’s not true,” DiCristofaro said.
Portman, who won his 2010 Senate race by 18 points and his 2016 race by 21 points, is not yet endorsing a Republican candidate to succeed him.