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GOP Gears Up for a Fierce Primary Battle to Replace Outgoing Sen. Rob Portman. Here Are the Possible Contenders.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced on Monday that he would not seek another six-year term when his current term expires in 2022, citing increased partisanship in the Senate.

“I don’t think any Senate office has been more successful in getting things done, but honestly, it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision,” Portman said in a statement on his website.

Portman, a moderate Republican who has been in politics for 30 years, said it’s a tough time to be in public “service.” He urged President Biden to fulfill his promise to reach across the aisle and vowed to work with him and his administration for the remainder of his term

Meanwhile, Ohio is abuzz with rumors about who on the Republican side might replace Portman. According to Politico, Portman’s announcement was “a blow to both Republicans’ hopes of taking back the Senate and the chamber’s dwindling number of centrists.”

While the latter is most certainly true, the former is dubious, at best. Except for a handful of high-profile Democrats, like Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio is still a very red state, with Republicans controlling all state-level offices, the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. President Trump won the state by 8 points in 2020, matching his margin of victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016. That said, Democrats won key judicial races in the last election, adding radicals left-wing judges to both the state Supreme Court and the Ninth District Court of Appeals. Still, there’s an excellent chance that Republicans will keep the Senate seat Portman is vacating, although it won’t be a cakewalk.

First, there will be a protracted contest to determine who will face the Democrat candidate in 2022. My friend Doug Deeken, chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party, predicts the race will be “long, expensive, and bloody.”

Among the names being bandied about on the Democrat side are failed presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, and failed former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper, who resigned from his post in November after another dismal Democrat showing in the 2020 election.

The Republican bench, however, is strong.

Top-tier candidates (in no particular order):

Secretary of State Frank LaRose: The well-spoken, photogenic 41-year-old has a stellar resume. After serving in the 101st Airborne Division and Green Berets, he returned home from Iraq, donning a Bronze Star, and served two terms in the Ohio Senate. He was elected to a four-year term as secretary of state in 2019 and is fresh off presiding over the 2020 election—which went off without a hitch—and was the beneficiary of a heap of earned media in the process, raising his profile in the state. While LaRose angered some for his part in mandating that the primary election be mail-in only, the well-run general election may have smoothed things over—especially after the chaos we saw in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan.

LaRose’s last campaign finance report shows him with nearly half a million dollars in cash on hand. If he decides to run for federal office, he’d need to close out his state account and create a federal campaign account. He’d also forfeit his right to run for reelection as secretary of state, so there is a fair amount of risk involved, should he decide to run. “The filing deadline is still a year away and Secretary LaRose’s focus right now is on finding ways to improve upon Ohio’s success so we can continue to thrive as a national model long into the future,” his spokesman said in a statement reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Congressman Jim Jordan has been one of Gov. DeWine’s biggest critics, especially on his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading some to speculate that he might be gearing up to primary the sitting Republican governor—that, or he’s trying to bolster his profile in the state in anticipation of a Senate bid. If Jordan decides to run, it’ll be a good test of President Trump’s post-election coattails. Jordan is wildly popular with Trump supporters thanks to his unwavering loyalty to the former president—he’s currently taking the lead in Trump’s defense during the Democrats’ latest witch hunt impeachment effort. Jordan has more than $5 million in cash on hand.

Former Congressman Jim Renacci has been signaling his interest in running for governor. He recently launched Ohio’s Future Foundation, “a policy and action-oriented organization whose goal is to move Ohio forward.” Renacci, 62, decided to run for Congress in 2010 after the Obama administration shuttered his car dealerships. In 2018, he was gearing up for a gubernatorial run when he abruptly changed course, reportedly at Trump’s behest, to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown. Renacci ultimately lost that race but has a history of besting Democrats who were thought to be unbeatable. He’s an excellent fundraiser and has an endearing habit of engaging with followers on social media in threads with hundreds of comments.

Asked if he has plans to rechallenge Brown, Renacci told PJM that he’s focused on “fixing Ohio.” “I found that going to Washington and being in the House of Representatives became a wasted effort in fixing Ohio,” he said, “and I’m going to continue to always look for ways to change Ohio for the better.”

“I’m going to work diligently to make Ohio better, to change the policies in Ohio that are causing Ohio to fail,” Renacci added.

While that sounds like someone who is running for governor, Renacci said he could not rule it out completely.

Former Treasurer Josh Mandel: When Portman announced that he would not seek another term, Twitter lit up with people predicting the resurrection of Mandel’s political career. The 43-year old was a rising star in the GOP—a former Marine intelligence specialist, state representative, and two-term state treasurer—until he abruptly announced he was dropping out of the Senate race in January 2018, citing family concerns. He has kept a low profile since then. In 2012, Mandel challenged Sen. Sherrod Brown, losing by 6 points. He fared much better in his 2010 and 2014 races for state treasurer, winning by 14 and 13 points, respectively. Mandel hasn’t been active on social media since he walked away from politics—a necessity in this day and age—but there’s one thing that might suggest that the popular Ohio Republican is mulling a comeback: Mandel is sitting on $4.3 million in campaign funds. “My passion for service has never waned, from serving my community, to serving our state, to serving our country for two tours in Iraq,” Mandel said in a statement Monday. “Any opportunity to continue that service is something I will consider very seriously.”

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted: Before becoming lieutenant general, Husted served as Ohio’s secretary of state and speaker of the House. The 53-year old is a good communicator and was a competent secretary of state. While some believe Husted would be a natural choice to succeed Gov. DeWine, others have suggested that now is the time for him to run for the Senate. His biggest obstacle in a crowded Republican primary field is his connection with DeWine’s wildly unpopular Democrat-lite COVID-19 policies. For months, Husted was front and center at the governor’s daily COVID briefings (Wine with DeWine! Squee!) and, should he decide to run for Senate, will be skewered by Republicans and Democrats alike. I wouldn’t count him out, but there doesn’t seem to be a path for him amid the field likely to develop over the next few months. “I will talk to Gov. DeWine and I will talk to Sen. Portman, but most of all, I will talk to my family and see if this is something that makes sense,” he said Monday.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost spent two terms as state auditor before becoming attorney general. Yost tweeted on Monday, “As people reach out to me, I will continue to consider how I can best serve all Ohioans moving forward, just as I always have.” That sounds like someone who’s seriously considering running. Like LaRose, Yost would have to forego a bid for a second term as attorney general to run for the Senate.

Yost has won all of his elections by healthy margins and has quietly gone about the business of protecting the rights of Ohioans, rooting out corruption, and pushing for transparency in state government. According to the attorney general’s website, “Major focuses of his administration have included battling the opioid epidemicstanding up for victims of human traffickingsolving cold-case homicides and sexual assaults, and shielding Ohio consumers from scammers and robocallers.” In 2018 he was one of nine attorneys general who launched an investigation into alleged anti-trust actions by Facebook and Twitter. All of this was done without fanfare or drama.

While he hasn’t focused on sexy issues, Yost, 64, is likable and a good communicator. A few years back, his campaign motto was “Peace, Love, and Skinny Government.” Who wouldn’t want to get behind that? I’d send him ten bucks just to get the bumper sticker.

Honorable mentions:

  • J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, which depicted life in Appalachia. He launched a Senate bid in 2018 but later dropped out.
  • Former Congressman Pat Tiberi served in the House from 2001 to 2018. He resigned in 2018 to run the Ohio Business Roundtable. There was speculation that he’d try to unseat Brown in 2018, but he declined to run. He has one big thing going for him: a $5 million war chest.
  • Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken is a Harvard grad, lawyer, and the Ohio GOP’s first female chair. She’s never held elected office, and Ohioans are somewhat divided on her, with some calling Timken a RINO sellout and others accusing her of being beholden to Trump.
  • Congressman Steve Stivers is a centrist Republican who launched the so-called “civility caucus” in the House. Cash on hand: $1.25 million.
  • Congressman Bill Johnson, 66, represents southeastern Ohio. He was one of several congressmen who raised concerns about Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania. Cash on hand: $996,888.

Over my dead body:

Former Gov. John Kasich: It pains me even to type his name here. The thrice-failed presidential candidate wore out his welcome in Ohio and around the country during his painfully long 2016 presidential run. Nevertheless, Twitter was all atwitter on Monday speculating that Kasich might run for the Senate—and he’s just arrogant enough to do it. His spokesman says Kasich has no plans to run, but he wouldn’t be the first politician to flip-flop on future plans. And speaking of flip-flops, Kasich has spent the last four years criticizing President Trump, bashing the Republican Party (he spoke at the DNC convention), and scowling at the cameras for CNN. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s zero chance Kasich could win a Republican primary in Ohio. You’re welcome.

There are likey others mulling Senate runs as well. For now, the field is wide open. Republicans will have the opportunity to win back their Senate majority in the midterm election, but much depends on how primaries in Ohio and other states play out. The old adage applies: Vote for the most conservative candidate who can win.” Policywise, a moderate Republican is always going to be better than a Democrat of any stripe.

Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard.