WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I think everyone considered that Rob Portman would probably be in the Senate forever," Congressman Mike Turner said in a recent interview, “so it was unexpected when he made his announcement.”
Sen. Rob Portman’s decision in January to retire at the end of his second term surprised just about everyone who follows politics in Ohio.
Though primary day is 13 months away, the race for a rarely-open U.S. Senate seat in a state known for its political muscle is heating up fast.
Over the course of the last month, Spectrum News has been speaking with the current and potential candidates and political insiders across the Buckeye State to gauge where things stand.
For Republicans, a debate over Trump’s role in the race
At least 10 Republicans are considering bids or have already jumped in to succeed Portman, a longtime player in the GOP known for his love of policy.
Former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken are the only two candidates officially in the race so far.
Standing in the wings are at least three current U.S. representatives from Ohio — Rep. Mike Turner (R, OH-10), Rep. Bill Johnson (R, OH-6), and Rep. Steve Stivers (R, OH-15) — prominent Republican businessmen Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Ohio State Senator Matt Dolan (R, 24th District).
Mandel, Timken, Gibbons, and Moreno flew to Florida last week to attend a fundraiser for Max Miller, a former Trump aide who is running to oust Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R, OH-16) after he voted to impeach Trump following the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The former president reportedly met with the four Ohioans.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R, OH-4), a high-profile ally of Trump who announced early on that he would not run for Senate, told Spectrum News in an interview March 19 that he doesn’t know “if and when [Trump] will announce someone that he’s supporting in the race. I assume he will at some point, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Jordan, who’s been raising millions of dollars as his national profile grew during the Trump presidency, said he’s not close to endorsing anyone.
“I’m not supporting necessarily anyone or endorsing anyone right now, we’ll just let that play out,” Jordan said. “And in the end, it’s the people of Ohio. I always say let the people decide.
Gibbons and Turner have launched statewide listening tours and released biographical videos as they flirt with entering the race.
Here’s the latest we know about the Republican field:
Mandel, the former two-term state treasurer, is pursuing his third bid for Senate after having been out of the political spotlight for the last few years.
Back in 2012, Mandel was the GOP Senate nominee who lost to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
He entered this 2022 race with more than $4 million leftover from his second Senate bid in 2018, which ended abruptly when Mandel exited the primary citing his now-ex-wife’s health.
Mandel has spent the early days of this campaign making flattering comments about Trump, attacking Republicans he views as too “establishment,” and posting controversial statements about minorities on Twitter — which led to his account briefly being suspended.
A frequent critic of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), Mandel has attacked the governor for his coronavirus restrictions. In an interview with Spectrum News on March 3, Mandel made false claims about the scientific research on the importance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
His first TV ad, which he released earlier this week, focuses on faith and does not mimic his rhetoric on Twitter.
When asked by Spectrum News how he squares the two, Mandel said he feels it’s what Ohioans want.
“I think what Constitutional conservatives and men and women of faith throughout our country want is fighters,” Mandel said in an interview March 28. “They don’t want wallflowers. They don’t want softness.”
Mandel has been endorsed by conservative organization Club for Growth and faith-based group Ohio Value Voters, in addition to Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee.
Timken, who spent the four years of Trump’s presidency as chairwoman of the Ohio GOP, is making her first run for elected office and has used the start of the campaign to prove her connections across the state.
To date, Timken has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R, OH-7), four Ohio Republican state senators, five Ohio GOP mayors, 10 Republican county party chairs in Ohio, 19 Ohio GOP state representatives, and 38 members of the Ohio Republican Party State Central Committee.
In two TV ads she has released, Timken focuses on supporting the Trump agenda and criticizing President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
Shortly after Mandel called on Rep. Gonzalez to resign for his impeachment vote, Timken followed suit after initially claiming in an interview with cleveland.com that “I think he’s got a rational reason why he voted that way. I think he’s an effective legislator, and he’s a very good person.”
Gibbons, a Cleveland businessman and longtime Republican donor who ran for Senate in 2018, announced a statewide listening tour on March 15 and released a biographical video to introduce himself to voters.
“We need to send someone with a business background, who will fight for working-class Ohioans, who’s unafraid to stand up to his own party and who will always tell the truth,” Gibbons said in a statement.
Earlier this month, Gibbons joined Mandel, Timken, and Moreno in traveling to Florida to attend the Max Miller fundraiser former President Trump made an appearance at.
Rep. Mike Turner
On March 29, Turner (R, OH-10), who has represented the Dayton region since 2003 and served as the city’s mayor before being elected to Congress, released his own biographical video and announced a statewide listening tour.
“We’re getting a significant amount of pressure to enter this race,” Turner told Spectrum News in an interview.
He said his experience as a legislator in Washington would sell because “Ohio has always picked people who they know can go and do the job. The Senate is not a place for amateurs.”
Turner, as a member of the House Armed Services and House Intelligence committees, is best known in his district for advocating for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the largest single-site employer in Ohio.
While the video Turner released teasing a Senate bid features clips of his defense of former President Trump during Trump’s first impeachment trial, Turner’s relationship with the former president is fairly complicated.
In July 2019, Turner called a series of tweets Trump made about minority members of Congress “racist” and said Trump “should apologize.”
In September 2019, as House Democrats were inching closer to impeaching Trump for a phone call he had with the president of Ukraine, Turner said during a House Intelligence Committee hearing that the call was “not OK” and that he thought it was “disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript.”
After the U.S. Capitol was attacked on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters attempting to overturn the electoral results, Turner released a statement that said, “President Trump is leaving office disgraced and discredited for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.”
Despite those criticisms, Turner voted to acquit Trump in both impeachment cases and blamed Democrats for politicizing the process.
He told Spectrum News he would “certainly” take Trump’s endorsement, but hinted that the former president wouldn’t be the main pillar of his campaign if he jumps in.
“Our views and our political work over the past four years are aligned,” Turner said of Trump. “I think, though, that we have to make certain that this is about Ohio. This is not a race about one man.”
Rep. Steve Stivers
Stivers, who has represented Ohio’s 15th District spanning from Columbus to Athens since 2011, has told Spectrum he is “seriously considering” entering the race.
“I’m still a ways away from a decision,” Stivers said in an interview on March 17. “I’ve got to talk to a lot of people, but I’ve been very excited that in my conversations, people are looking for somebody who will talk about solutions.”
Stivers is a major general in the Ohio Army National Guard who has established himself on Capitol Hill as a mild-mannered lawmaker who co-created the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus with Columbus-area Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty.
He also served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 2017 to 2019, giving him firsthand experience at fundraising across the country.
Throughout Trump’s time in office, Stivers was supportive of the president’s policies, but would criticize his behavior from time to time.
“People are looking for somebody who will address the problems of everyday Ohioans, and not just somebody who wants to have a squabble with the other candidates in the race,” Stivers told Spectrum News. “I’m doing this for the forgotten people of Ohio if I decide to run, not because I don’t like the other candidates.”
Rep. Bill Johnson
As Stivers and Turner position themselves as more middle of the road Republican candidates, Johnson, who has represented Ohio’s 6th District since 2011, is considering jumping in as another extremely pro-Trump candidate.
“It’s one thing to talk about being a Trump supporter, it’s another thing to have a record to prove it,” Johnson told Spectrum News on March 10. “I’ve got a voting record to prove it.”
Johnson’s district includes parts of Appalachia, a rural stretch that shifted from supporting Democrats to backing Trump in 2016 and 2020 by big margins. He’s a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked in information technology and manufacturing before entering Congress.
“I’ve been representing eastern and southeastern Ohio for 10 years,” Johnson told Spectrum News. “Can I do a better job for them and for our state as a senator? I think I could make the case that that is probably true. But we’re going to take our time. We’re under no pressure to hurry.”
As the first member of Ohio’s congressional delegation to endorse Trump in 2016, Johnson has supported the former president for years.
When asked if he sees a pro-Trump lane to run in that could separate him from Mandel and Timken, Johnson said his record would be the difference maker.
“It’s one thing for Jane Timken and Josh Mandel to talk about supporting Trump, it’s another thing to be able to show it with your actual voting record,” Johnson said.
Vance, a venture capitalist and author of the well-known memoir Hillbilly Elegy, has been rumored as a candidate for political office since his book about his family’s Appalachian roots became a best seller.
As first reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 15, a super PAC formed in February to encourage Vance to run for Senate received a $10 million donation from conservative billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
The Protect Ohio Values PAC says on its website that “we believe J. D. Vance is the right man for the job and we are signing up supporters and raising funds to demonstrate a groundswell of support in the Buckeye State.”
In a podcast interview with conservative activist Charlie Kirk on March 20, Vance said he’s “thinking very seriously about taking a run for the Senate.”
Vance’s support for Trump has grown during the last few years and he pitched himself on Kirk’s podcast as a young conservative who will build upon the foundation laid by the former president.
“I want to build a society that’s very consistent with the type of demands that I think the Christian faith places on me, which is it’s people first,” Vance told Kirk.
At one point in the interview, Vance discussed his vision for how government should help Americans.
“We want to have families with more children," Vance told Kirk. “Let’s make that happen. Let’s enact that through public policy…We think that you should stop teaching bogus critical race theory at woke universities. Let’s do something through public policy to make that happen.”
Moreno, a Cleveland-area businessman and longtime Republican donor, is also considering a Senate bid.
As cleveland.com reported in February, Moreno resigned from the MetroHealth board of trustees as he weighs his “political future.”
Earlier this month, Moreno joined Mandel, Timken, and Gibbons in traveling to Florida to attend the Max Miller fundraiser former President Trump made an appearance at.
Moreno, who has never held political office, is a frequent Twitter user and regularly shares and comments on political, tech, and business news.
In a tweet March 25, Moreno wrote of President Biden, “Only someone who has spent 40 years in the DC bubble, who has made most of his money by selling access, think hard-working Ohio tax payers want to pay to rebuild countries around the world. It’s easy to be ‘compassionate’ with other people’s money.”
A spokesperson for Moreno has not returned a request for comment. In a Twitter message Feb. 10, Moreno told Spectrum News, “Nothing to report yet!”
Other Republican names floated
With Ohio leaning more Republican in recent years, a lost list of Republicans considering their options formed almost immediately after Sen. Portman’s retirement announcement.
In an interview March 31, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose told Spectrum News that he’ll announce in the coming weeks whether he’ll run. He said it’s something he’s “put some thought into.”
Rep. Dave Joyce (R, OH-14) and his team have remained quiet since the congressman released a statement in late January saying “there will be plenty of time in the coming weeks for lots of folks, myself among them, to consider their options moving forward.”
Northeast Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns Cleveland’s major league baseball team, is reportedly weighing a run and recently criticized one of Mandel’s controversial tweets by writing, “Bigotry MUST stop.”
In an interview with Spectrum on March 18, Rep. Warren Davidson (R, OH-8) said, “I don’t really plan to run for Senate in 2022. What I am looking at in 2022 is A) Congress, of course, and B) I’m encouraged by the feedback I’ve received on the governor’s race and I am taking a hard look at the governor’s race.”
On March 29, a spokesperson for Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R, OH-2) confirmed to Spectrum News that the congressman has decided not to run for Senate.
For Democrats, a debate over pursuing the next Sherrod Brown or an outsider
At least two Democrats are seriously considering running to try to turn Portman’s seat blue, while a few others are weighing their options.
The reality, according to Democrats across the state, is that Portman was viewed as nearly impossible to beat, so his surprise retirement has revived the Ohio Democratic Party’s hope that a realistic shot to win the seat exists.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) and former Ohio Health Department Director Dr. Amy Acton are the two names being taken most seriously.
Two other Democrats being floated are Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who’s also seriously considering a run for governor, and State Rep. Emilia Sykes, the current minority leader of the Ohio statehouse.
Sen. Sherrod Brown is the only Democrat elected statewide in Ohio who’s not a judge, so his political strategy is revered by activists and advisors throughout the state.
There are growing conversations about whether Ryan, a longtime member of Congress who in many ways embodies a younger version of Brown, is the best chance for success.
But supporters of Acton, whose never held elected office, argue it’s time for the Ohio Democratic Party to reset and try someone new.
Here’s the latest we know about the Democratic field:
Rep. Tim Ryan
Ryan has represented Ohio’s Mahoning Valley in the U.S. House since 2003 and briefly ran for president in 2019.
Long considered a potential candidate for statewide office in Ohio, Ryan made clear right when Portman announced his retirement that he was seriously considering entering the race and started fundraising for it.
Democrats across the state have told Spectrum News that Ryan was mulling a run for governor before Portman’s retirement, but the rare open Senate seat quickly became priority.
In an interview with Spectrum News on Feb. 26, Ryan said he officially ruled out running for governor and was focusing solely on a potential Senate bid.
“We’re continuing to make calls, we’re continuing to get calls,” Ryan said. "We’ll make a decision here, I guess, in the coming weeks. I don’t feel in any rush to make a decision.”
In recent weeks, Ryan has picked up endorsements to run by a list of unions, including the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers; and The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 6.
He’s also been encouraged to run by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9), the Ohio Chapter of Moms Demand Action gun control group, chair of the Ohio Democratic Women’s Caucus Kathy DiCristofaro, and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
When President Joe Biden visited Columbus on March 23, he gave Ryan, who was in the room, a shoutout.
“I always kid with Tim, if I’ve got to be in a foxhole, he’s the guy I want to be with,” Biden said. “He always keeps his word, does exactly what he says he’s going to do. And it’s great seeing you, Tim.”
Dr. Amy Acton
Acton, the former Ohio Department of Health director who became a household name when the coronavirus began, made waves when she announced in early February that she was seriously considering joining the Senate race.
“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,” Acton said in a statement Feb. 4.
The Democratic doctor has never held elected office before, but she developed a cult following during her daily coronavirus briefings with DeWine.
As the briefings went viral, Acton also gained her share of Republican critics who attacked the coronavirus restrictions she advocated for. She ended up resigning from her health department job last summer.
A political action committee that focuses on electing scientists, 314 Action, is encouraging Acton to run and is pledging to support her in big ways.
“We’re prepared to spend up to $5 million for Dr. Acton — in the primary, if she formally enters,” spokesman John Sweeney told Spectrum on March 26. “We were encouraged by the consistency of the polling we did for the primary and the general.”
The group has commissioned primary and general election polling that shows Acton with decent favorability numbers and fairing better in matchups against Republicans compared to Rep. Ryan.
"The pandemic is going to do for doctors and scientists what the Iraq war did for veteran candidates,” Josh Morrow, the executive director of the 314 Action Fund, told Spectrum in an interview March 22.
If Acton gets into the race, it will be the first time 314 Action has supported a candidate for statewide office in Ohio. The group is also encouraging Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who has a background as a chemist, to run for governor.
A person close to Acton told Spectrum News on March 26 that Acton is still in the consideration stage.
“Seeing the numbers from 314…is extremely encouraging,” the person said, adding that if Acton enters the race, her team is confident she we also receive support from other outside groups like EMILY’s List and will be capable of raising large sums of money.
Acton has kept a low profile since February, but the person close to her said she recently received her COVID-19 vaccine in Columbus and was met with “a love fest” of fans who recognized the doctor and asked for photos.
She also recently received an American Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year award.
The person said Acton is “having a lot of individual conversations and private conservations” that are “encouraging,” and added that “a lot of it’s not the usual suspects,” so political watchers may be surprised by who’s supporting her if she joins the race.
Other Democratic names floated
Like Rep. Ryan, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has for years been viewed as a potential candidate for statewide office.
“I have gotten a lot of encouragement, especially today and will make my decision in the coming weeks,” Whaley told Spectrum News on Jan. 25, the day Portman announced his retirement.
Democrats throughout the state now say Whaley is more focused on running for governor.
A spokesperson for Whaley told Spectrum News on March 31 that “we do not have any updates yet. Nan will make an announcement in April or May.”
State Rep. Emilia Sykes, the powerful House minority leader in the statehouse, is also reportedly considering a Senate bid.