Democrats face tough odds in race for Ohio Senate seat
Ohio Democrats are eyeing Sen. Rob Portman’s (R) seat after he announced he would not seek reelection in 2022, in what will be a contentious fight as they seek to flip the Republican-leaning state.
Buckeye State Democrats were given an early boost last week when prominent conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) announced he would not run for Senate next year.
Additionally, the state’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost, ruled out a bid for Portman’s seat on Monday, saying he will instead pursue reelection for his current post.
Ohio, once considered a swing state, has been trending red after former President Trump flipped it in 2016 by roughly 8 points. Former President Obama was the last Democrat to win at the presidential level in 2012.
But despite Republican inroads, the state is home to prominent Democrats like Sen. Sherrod Brown, who defeated his Republican challenger, former Rep. Jim Renacci, by nearly 7 points in 2018.
“It’s a tough state for Democrats but it’s still very competitive, and this Senate race will be very competitive,” said Justin Barasky, who served as campaign manager for Brown’s 2018 reelection campaign.
“Ohio’s a center-right state that has become increasingly difficult for Democrats but still very much possible to win,” he added. “There are enough people in the state willing to vote for the right Democrat. Sherrod Brown has proved that.”
Ohio Republicans have been wracked by division, something that could negatively impact the primary for Portman’s seat.
A number of conservatives in the Ohio state House called to impeach Gov. Mike DeWine (R) over his coronavirus restrictions last year. DeWine also broke with the Ohio Republican Party in November, recognizing Joe Biden as the president-elect.
The fractures seen in the Ohio Republican Party mirror the divides seen among Republicans in Washington and elsewhere as the party looks to move forward in a post-Trump world. Among the questions Republicans are grappling with is whether Trump will play a role in the primary process.
“The tension and the turmoil is just as real in Ohio as it is in D.C.,” said La Trice Washington, a professor at Otterbein University in Ohio. “The question becomes, after this second impeachment trial, will he have any modicum of potential legitimate power?”
The New York Times reported Monday night that Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is planning to run for Portman’s seat. The Democratic congressman received encouragement from high-profile members of his party, including Hillary Clinton and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D). He had expressed interest in the opening shortly after Portman’s announcement.
“I’m overwhelmed by supporters who are reaching out to encourage me to run for Senate. I haven’t made a decision yet but I’m looking seriously at it. Ohio deserves leaders who fight for working people,” Ryan tweeted earlier this month.
Ryan is a progressive who unsuccessfully challenged Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her leadership post in 2016. His district, which makes up an area spanning from Youngstown to Akron, has become increasingly red in recent years, yet Ryan has still managed to be reelected in the changing political landscape.
Additionally, Ryan raised his national profile during his 2020 presidential run, where he campaigned on his record legislating in a district won by Trump in 2016.
“It makes him very well-positioned to be, I think, more likely than not the most competitive Democrat,” said former Ohio state Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro (D).
Ryan isn’t the only Democrat weighing a run for Portman’s seat next year. Others said to be considering a campaign are former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, Ohio state House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes and Amy Acton, the former Ohio Health Department director who helped lead the state’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to two Democratic operatives.
Democrats currently hold only the narrowest of majorities in the Senate, relying on Vice President Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock.
But while Republicans need only to gain one seat in 2022 to recapture control of the Senate, they must also defend 20 seats, including several in competitive states where Democrats are hoping to make inroads. Democrats are defending 14 Senate seats this cycle.
At the same time, Republicans have seen a slate of retirements, raising the possibility of drawn-out primaries that could fracture their voter base and take away much-needed time to campaign against Democratic rivals.
In addition to Portman, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have said they will not seek reelection in 2022. Meanwhile, neither Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) nor Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has said whether they will run for reelection in 2022, raising the possibility of still more retirements.
Still, midterm elections tend to be difficult for the party in power. In 2018, Republicans lost dozens of seats in the House as Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to the majority. Likewise, Obama saw his party lose control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Given those trends, Portman’s retirement came as a relief to Democrats, taking out of the running a two-term incumbent and formidable fundraiser that they once saw as one of their biggest obstacles to victory in the Ohio Senate race.
Adding to the optimism is Jordan’s decision to forgo a Senate bid, a development that has buoyed Democratic hopes of a bruising Republican primary without a clear front-runner. Others seen as potential contenders for the GOP nomination include former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, Rep. Steve Stivers, Ohio GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken and author J.D. Vance.
Aaron Pickrell, an Ohio-based Democratic consultant, said that such a nominating contest could prompt a reckoning within the state GOP, forcing Republicans to choose between the populist faction of the party led by Trump or the moderate establishment wing represented by the likes of former Gov. John Kasich.
“[Portman’s] not a lightning-rod type of leader and he’s a proficient fundraiser,” Pickrell said. “Him not running — I think that the odds are almost 100 percent that there will be a competitive Republican primary that will bring out what is the future of the Ohio Republican Party. Is it aligned with Trump, or is it aligned with John Kasich?”
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