But treat it as an educated guess at this early stage. There are a lot of variables — and ambitions — in play. All we know for sure at this point is that this race will be closely watched nationally given the delicate balance of power in the 50-50 Senate.
I served on Portman’s staff during his first year in the Senate, and tend to take him at his word when he cites family in Ohio and lack of bipartisanship in Washington as the primary reasons for his decision. But more cynical sources think Portman scanned the Ohio political landscape and didn’t like the view. Portman, said one operative, “is a George Bush, Mitt Romney Republican, and he understands that’s not where the Ohio GOP is.”
According to more than one observer, the Ohio GOP is now Jordan country. The fiery congressman from Lima, a top Trump defender who, by many accounts, was already considering taking on Gov. Mike DeWine in the 2022 Republican primary, sensed an opening in right-wing dismay at DeWine’s aggressive covid-19 restrictions. But Jordan has long understood that his pugnacious, hard-right style of politics could one day hurt him in a statewide run, and questions continue to dog him about what he knew about an Ohio State University sex-abuse scandal involving a wrestling team doctor. Nevertheless, expect Jordan to be first in line for Portman’s seat.
But that line will almost certainly be long. Among those competing for Trump’s base could be Rep. Warren Davidson and state Republican Chair Jane Timken. Meanwhile, Republicans staking out more moderate ground might include Rep. Steve Stivers, state Sen. Matt Dolan and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. Former congressman and 2018 U.S. Senate nominee Jim Renacci and Rep. Michael R. Turner have also been mentioned, as has Rep. Brad Wenstrup. In other words, almost every Republican with a pulse.
As one consultant put it, the dividing line will be the reality of raising upward of $20 million for a primary. It’s clear Jordan, with his big national profile, can do that. Can others?
At least a couple of Democratic hopefuls joined Republicans Monday in telling reporters that they’re “keeping their options open” or “taking a look at it.” But the insiders I spoke with are confident that Ohio has drifted too far right for Democrats to put up much of a fight, pointing to statewide GOP wins in 2018 — including a poll-defying victory by DeWine in the governor’s race — coupled with Trump’s comfortable reelection margin.
Keeping the state from glowing bright-red is the continued success of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, in his third term after winning reelection in 2018 against Renacci. But is Brown — an old-school liberal and gifted campaigner — the exception that proves the rule? The Ohio Democratic bench isn’t deep. Former state attorney general Richard Cordray’s underperformance against DeWine hurt his profile. Rep. Tim Ryan was also making noise Monday about the seat, but he’s viewed as perennially testing the waters without wading in too deep.
But one fresh face emerged in conversations about Democratic Party possibilities: Whaley, who gained national recognition following gun violence in her town in 2019. Whaley’s response to the tragedy drew plaudits from all sides, as did her handling of a Trump visit a few days later. Whaley has a knack for winning respect across the aisle, an uncommon trait in this political environment. She announced this month she won’t seek reelection. “It’s time to move on,” she said then, declining to be more specific.
Whaley comes across as a pragmatist, a better fit for the state than Democrats who are viewed as more progressively extreme. A Jordan-Whaley matchup would likely be competitive, especially if being tied to Trump loses some luster over the next couple of years.
As for Portman, it’s not hard to believe that, having just turned 65, he’s genuinely reassessing how he wants to spend his future. He will stay involved, and has not flatly ruled out a run for president in 2024. As the dust settles and the party figures out how the Trump side co-exists with, well, everybody else in the party, Portman could be influential.
Still, as I was often reminded Monday, Portman’s decision to step aside is a nod, at least in part, to the current GOP landscape. As one longtime operative said, “For Republicans, the looming presence for the foreseeable future will be Donald J. Trump.”