Mailbag: Can Rob Portman be defeated in 2022?

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Every season is election season, and it’s time for another Mailbag:

Got a question about Ohio politics/government? Send them to [email protected] or tweet them to @tylerjoelb.

Do you think U.S. Sen. Rob Portman can be defeated in 2022?

– @Meg_Jewell2, on Twitter.

Answer: Anybody can be beat, but his seat will be a tough get for Ohio Democrats. 

What is it with us Americans? We can barely get done with one election before we move onto the next one.

Oh, who am I kidding? Let’s look at 2022. 

First, a main outline of the race ahead. Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, served a dozen years in Congress before joining the Bush administration in 2005. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 amid a wave of Tea Party support, then was reelected comfortably in 2016.

Portman would be seeking his third term in office. 

Democrats will seek to flip the seat and, if successful, would hold both U.S. Senate seats in Ohio for the first time since 1995. 

The challenging party already faces an uphill battle regardless of the office, incumbent politician or election year. In the General Elections between 2012 and 2020, there were 25 statewide elections for offices such as governor, U.S. Senator and supreme court justice. 

Republicans went 20-5. 

Portman in particular will be a difficult campaign foe. Neither of his 2010 or 2016 races were close. He is a prolific fundraiser, having brought in $13 million during his first run and more than $25 million for 2016. 

He has the support of the Republican Party establishment, and he’s kept his toe in the Trump waters just enough over the past four years to be viewed favorably by that camp, too.

Depending on how the Georgia run-offs go in a few months, the U.S. Senate will either be evenly split headed into 2022 or just barely leaning toward Republicans. Either way, the GOP will be plenty motivated to defend Portman’s seat — not only to get him reelected but to reinforce the increasing notion that Ohio is a Republican-leaning state. 

Add it all up, and it can look pretty daunting.

Democrats aren’t waiting around to get started. Portman’s vote last month to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett helped to kick off the opposition campaign.

The Ohio Democratic Party began circulating a “Defeat Portman” fundraising page to benefit the eventual party nominee in 2022. High-profile Democrats in the state shared the page, from Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley to Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval. 

So, can Portman be defeated? To help answer that, I turned to a few Cincinnati political experts: David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Jason Williams, the political columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. 

There are a few main keys to the race:

The White House matters

Prior to Election Day, both Niven and Williams told me they thought the 2020 presidential race would be a major factor in Ohio’s 2022 senate race.

“Can (Portman) be beaten? Absolutely he can be beaten,” Niven said. “But honestly, one of the things he may have in his favor is a Biden presidency.”

Ohio U.S. Sen. Rob Portman with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

At first glance, that might seem to be a bit counterintuitive. Wouldn’t Democrats winning the White House give the party momentum headed into the midterm elections?

History generally says otherwise. Niven pointed out it is difficult for the incumbent party holding the White House to expand its congressional base. The opposition party is motivated to cut into the political gains made by the party in control.

Had Trump been reelected, Republicans would have had to defend against the political fatigue setting in around the six-year mark of his presidency. That would’ve been in 2022.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both dealt with this during their second terms. Ohio went to Bush twice in 2000 and 2004, but the midterm in 2006 was the year Democratic challenger Sherrod Brown unseated another Republican seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate: Mike DeWine. 

Similarly, 2014 (the sixth year of Obama’s presidency) was an awful year for the Democratic Party. Republicans flipped nine U.S. Senate seats that year.

Picture, for a moment, how motivated Ohio Democrats would have been to head to the polls in 2022 with Trump still in the White House. 

Who will run against Portman?

The presidency aside, another factor will of course be which Democrat wins the nomination to face Portman. That is another challenge, Williams believes:

Compounding the issue somewhat is this Portman race will coincide with a number of other statewide elections in 2022 for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, auditor, attorney general and secretary of state. In other words, Democrats do not need just one candidate with the skills, experience and name recognition to compete across the state — they need seven.

The Ohio Democrat seen as best positioned to compete statewide might not even be the one running against Portman. They might instead file for governor or one of the other offices.

Name recognition might be the trickiest part. It’s tough to build statewide recognition in Ohio, Niven said. There are numerous media markets, not to mention the big cultural divide between the large cities and rural communities. 

“It’s hard to get known fast in Ohio,” Niven said.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, believes there is reason for optimism. In a call with reporters the morning after Election Day, Brown said there are plenty of up-and-coming Ohio Democrats who could have a shot in 2022.

Could Brown name any, Columbus Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow asked?

“Well you know I’m not going to name names, Randy,” Brown responded with a chuckle. “Nice try.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, said “there’s a lot of people that I like” who might run for statewide office in 2022.

Brown did say “there’s a lot of people that I like.”

“We have a good crop of mayors, state legislators, house members, senators, four members of congress, that who knows, might be interested in doing something statewide,” the senator said.

Over the coming year we will see just who decides to make a run for it.

Got a question about Ohio politics/government? Send them to [email protected] or tweet them to @tylerjoelb.

Reading material:

Here are some important and interesting Ohio Capital Journal articles you may have missed:

Not a single HB 6 ‘yes’ vote lost their election. Some ‘no’ votes did – I wrote about how the House Bill 6 scandal did not appear to have much of an impact on this year’s elections, as no one who voted for the tainted nuclear bailout bill lost their election.

‘We’re just kind of drowning:’ Counties say they’re overwhelmed with new COVID-19 cases – Jake Zuckerman gives as snapshot of how the virus response is going in Ohio’s 88 counties. There are record numbers of cases and hospitalizations across Ohio, he reports.

Where Ohio’s GOP leaders are on the outcome of the election – Are Ohio leaders accepting the results of the presidential election? Some are, some aren’t. Marty Schladen gives an insight into who is saying what about the 2020 results.  

State school funding overhaul begins trek through Ohio House – There is one last push to get Ohio school funding reform passed before the end of this legislative term, Susan Tebben reports. 

Trump, Republican enablers busy proving they are a threat to the integrity of the American Republic – “Words matter,” editor Dave DeWitt writes. “The words of America’s elected leaders matter. Their silence matters, too.”

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