Ohio Senate: Portman Decision Complicates Race

January 25, 2021 · 11:57 AM EST

Republican Sen. Rob Portman is not seeking re-election in Ohio, giving Democrats a glimmer of hope in a seat that didn’t look all that competitive at this early stage of the 2022 cycle. 

The senator’s comments about “partisan gridlock” will add to the narrative that Republicans are in disarray in the wake of President Donald Trump’s time in office. But Portman’s announcement does not mean Republicans are on the brink of losing this Senate seat. Ohio has been trending Republican for the last few years and, historically, Republicans should have the national political environment in their favor with a Democrat in the White House. 

Portman is the third Senate Republican to announce he will not seek re-election, joining Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has not announced whether or not he will run for another term. 

The open seat will likely spawn a crowded and contentious Republican primary and a Democratic search for the perfect candidate. 

Initial potential GOP candidates include Rep. Jim Jordan (who has become a favorite of Trump), Rep. Steve Stivers (former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, former Rep. Jim Renacci (who lost the 2018 race to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown by 6 points), and former state Treasurer Josh Mandel (who lost a 2012 race to Brown by 6 points). Mandel had $4.3 million in a federal campaign account on Sept. 30, 2020.

The initial Democratic list of potential candidates includes Rep. Tim Ryan, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former state Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (who lost races for Congress in 2000 and 2006). Both fields could be influenced by how strong or weak GOP Gov. Mike DeWine appears in next year’s primary and general elections. 

In 2020, there was some pre-election polling which showed a competitive presidential race. But Trump finished with an 8-point victory of Joe Biden (53-45 percent). That’s very similar to his 8-point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016 (51-43 percent). At the Senate level, Brown has proven a Democrat can win, though Democrats have struggled to replicate his magic in other partisan races. Beyond the U.S. Senate, all five statewide offices have been held by Republicans since 2011.

According to Inside Elections’ Baseline, which averages the partisan performance for Democratic and Republican candidates over the most recent four election cycles, a typical Republican candidate would prevail in Ohio 54.7-43.2 percent (a margin of R +11.5). 

And according to Baseline, Ohio hasn’t been all that competitive for some time. In 2014, Republicans’ Baseline advantage was 8.3 percent (52.4-44.1 percent) and jumped to 12.3 percent after 2016 (54.3-42 percent). After 2018, the GOP advantage dipped to 9.6 percent (53.6-44.1 percent) as both of Brown’s victories were included in the formula. 

An open seat is a better opportunity for Democrats, but Ohio isn't the swing state it once was. It's probably up to Republicans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. While historical midterm trends aren’t in Democrats’ favor, they’ll be hoping for a replay of 2010, when Republicans minimized their gains by nominating unpalatable Senate candidates in key contests.

With the strong correlation between the partisan lean of the state and the Senate result in 2020, Republicans should still be given a significant advantage in the 2022 Senate race in Ohio. Not only would the GOP need to nominate a fundamentally flawed candidate but Democrats would also need to identify and cultivate a stellar candidate. If those pieces start to fall into place, the Ohio race would move onto the Senate battleground.