For years, Portman navigated the shifting political climate. Now he wants out.

By: - January 26, 2021 1:00 am

Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH

Rob Portman of Ohio will not be seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate, with the Cincinnati Republican citing increased polarization in American politics as a reason to not campaign for a third term

The surprise announcement on Monday morning set off an early-week scramble for politicians of both parties to consider a run at the open seat in 2022. 

In a statement, Portman said he intends to use his final two years in the U.S. Senate to “get a lot done,” pledging to work with the newly-inaugurated Biden administration on the COVID-19 pandemic response and other legislative priorities. 

“I feel fortunate to have been entrusted by the people of Ohio to represent them in the US Senate,” Portman said in a statement, calling it “an honor” to have served the Buckeye State.

The departure will cap off a decades-long career in public service for Portman, 65, a moderate in both policy and style who has navigated a rightward shift within the Republican Party in recent years.

An ‘increasingly polarized country’

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

Portman said Monday that “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.”

He called America “an increasingly polarized country” with both parties being pushed toward ideological extremes, making this “a tough time to be in public service.”

“This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but a problem that has gotten worse over the past few decades,” his statement added.

It is certainly a much different political climate than when Portman first entered politics more than four decades ago. As a student of Dartmouth College, Portman interned for Cincinnati Congressman Bill Gradison.

He would return to New Hampshire in 1980 to work on the presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush, sparking a close relationship with the Bush family that continued in the years that followed.

Portman went on to study law and Bush won the presidency in 1988. He hired Portman to serve as an associate White House counsel and later as a liaison to Congress. 

When Gradison resigned from his seat in 1993, Portman defeated a number of Republicans in a special election primary. He then proved his financial prowess in his first general election, raising 16-times as much as his Democratic opponent to win the seat.

Portman developed a reputation as an amicable policy wonk who could be a great asset for Republican campaigns. He once again helped out the Bushes by becoming a surrogate and fundraiser for George W. Bush’s presidential run in 2000. One Cincinnati event organized by Portman brought in $1 million for the Bush campaign.

The Ohioan made a name for himself as an expert debate prepper. Starting in 2000, Portman portrayed Democratic politicians in mock debates for four straight presidential cycles.

He was the “stand-in” for Joe Lieberman against vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney that first year, also assisting New York Republican Rick Lazio by portraying Hillary Clinton during a 2000 election for U.S. Senate.

Portman would go on to play John Edwards against Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, sparring against John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Portman’s coveted debate work was a combination of studious preparation, political knowhow and an innate acting ability, The Guardian quoted a McCain advisor as saying in 2012.

He remained a loyal ally to the Bush administration while in Congress. In 2005, Bush appointed him to serve as U.S. trade representative and later named him director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Portman stepped down as budget chief in mid-2007. He had been commuting home on weekends for over a decade — since being first elected to Congress — and expressed a desire to head back to Ohio. In leaving Washington, Portman did not rule out a future run for governor or senator. 

“There’s no finer man in public service than Rob Portman,” President Bush said upon his departure.

Back to Ohio, then back to D.C.

Returning to Ohio, Portman learned to toe the line between a political center and the more hardline elements of his party. 

In February 2008, Portman was invited to speak at a Cincinnati rally for McCain’s campaign. Preceding him on stage was conservative radio host Bill Cunningham, who referred to Obama as a “hack” and made disparaging comments about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s looks. 

Cunningham even invoked Portman and his wife Jane’s names in making a crude joke about the homosexuality of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.

“Willie,” Portman said in taking the mic, “you’re out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him. But I’ve got to tell you, Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important.”

After the event, McCain denounced Cunningham’s comments and apologized for them. Portman told reporters: “I was backstage so I didn’t hear everything (Cunningham) said.” 

Portman jumped back into electoral politics in 2010 in announcing a run for U.S. Senate.

“My concern is that Washington doesn’t seem to get it,” he told columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.  

An election cycle centered on outsider politics and the Tea Party movement could have proven to be a challenge for a former Bush appointee. Instead, he benefited from there a Democratic senate primary; a weakened Ohio economy putting pressure on his eventual opponent, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher; and the Portman trademark of prolific fundraising. 

Portman raised more than $13 million for the race and cruised to a comfortable victory in a fortuitous election year for Ohio Republicans. The party took back the governor’s seat and rising stars such as Jon Husted and Josh Mandel were elected to their first statewide offices.

Portman outperformed them all, winning the highest percentage and largest total of votes. 

From possible Romney VP to Trump supporter

Early in his first term, Portman was vetted for the vice presidential slot on Mitt Romney’s 2012 ticket.

Portman’s biggest strength — experience — also proved to be a hindrance. The Romney campaign was skeptical about choosing someone with close connections to the George W. Bush administration. 

It was believed Portman could help the ticket carry Ohio, but the Romney camp found little evidence to back up that conclusion. In February 2012, a Quinnipiac University survey of Ohio voters found that President Obama polled slightly ahead of Romney. The poll also asked how Ohioans would vote if Portman was named as Romney’s VP pick — Obama actually gained a percentage point.

Romney ended up going in a different direction.

In 2013, Portman made headlines for becoming the first sitting GOP senator to endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage. He said this support followed his son coming out as gay two years before. 

More a workhorse than showhorse in D.C., Portman primarily stayed out of the spotlight during Obama’s two terms. A Quinnipiac Poll from May 2016 found that 42% of registered voters in Ohio said they didn’t know enough about Portman to form an opinion about him. 

That was after he had already served a dozen years in the U.S. House of Representatives, two years in the Bush administration and five years as a U.S. Senator.

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

During the Republican presidential primary, Portman first chose to endorse fellow Ohioan John Kasich. He later backed Trump for the general election before rescinding his support after an Access Hollywood tape was published showing Trump in 2005 boasting of grabbing women’s genitals without their consent. Portman said he would vote for vice presidential candidate Mike Pence instead. 

Portman is often ranked as one of the most bipartisan senators, in that he frequently co-sponsors bills that are sponsored by Democratic lawmakers. It is also true that Portman became a reliable vote in favor of Trump’s policies as president.

An analysis from the website FiveThirtyEight found that Portman voted in line with Trump’s positions 88% of the time — a higher amount than other Trump allies such as Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham. It is nearly the identical voting record percentage as Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who is considered one of Trump’s top supporters on Capitol Hill. 

Portman voted in favor of the Trump tax cuts and sought a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, though he broke with the president in not wanting a repeal without a replacement in place. He voted for Trump’s cabinet members and the Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

The latter vote was in contrast to Portman’s own legislative precedent he outlined in 2016. When a Supreme Court seat opened up in February of that year, Portman advocated for waiting to confirm a replacement in order to allow “the American people to weigh in on who should make a lifetime appointment that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations.”

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died six weeks before the 2020 election, Portman reversed course and urged the Republican-led Senate to confirm Barrett. 

Portman avoided criticizing the president and dodged questions related to Trump’s conduct, telling reporters he was unfamiliar with the controversies in question. In one exchange, he evaded questioning by saying he was late for lunch.

The president’s Access Hollywood tape all but forgotten, Portman served as a co-chair for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and was named a co-captain of its Victory Finance Committee. He joined the president’s daughter for a MAGA rally in Youngstown a week before Election Day.

Nevertheless, Portman was one of the first Republicans in Congress to acknowledge Biden’s victory as being legitimate. He did not object to Biden’s presidential electors as several other Ohio Republicans did and has stated there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Who will run for the open seat?

There is a long list of Democratic and Republican names already identified as potential candidates for the seat.

For Republicans, this announcement provides a newfound opportunity for those who were not otherwise planning to run in a contested primary for the seat. Among those who have already expressed interest or are rumored to be eyeing a campaign include Lt. Gov. Jon Husted; former state treasurer Josh Mandel; Rep. Jordan;  Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta; Attorney General Dave Yost; former Rep. Jim Renacci; and others.

Ohio Democrats had created a “Defeat Rob Portman Fund” following the Justice Barrett nomination fight and now have a much different path to winning the seat. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, tweeted Monday he was “looking seriously” at running, with other possible candidates including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley; Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes of Akron; Dr. Vin Gupta of the Toledo area, and others.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said Monday he was “looking seriously” at running for U.S. Senate in 2022.

Some 2022 election ratings predicted Ohio would not be competitive with Portman on the ballot. Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, believed a Portman race in 2022 would be “potentially competitive” but was likely to lean in the incumbent’s favor.

Kondik tweeted Monday the race remains favored toward the Republican Party, but the shake-up provides an opening to Democrats “under (the) right circumstances.”

Still two years remaining in term

As the dust settles from Portman’s announcement, it remains to be seen how the Republican will approach his final two years in office now that he is unencumbered by any electoral considerations.

Such is the major question, said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati who is a former Democratic Party speechwriter. 

Niven outlined two models for how the next two years could go for Portman: Jeff Flake and Lamar Alexander.

Flake, an Arizona Republican, was a vocal Trump critic and frequently spoke his mind after announcing he would not run for reelection in 2018. (Trump responded in kind, and Flake was recently censured by the Arizona Republican Party.)

Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, decided in 2018 not to run for reelection for the 2020 cycle and remained a Trump ally for the rest of his term.

Niven said the next two years will give a clear sense of Portman’s true political leanings without another race in front of him.

The first major test could be the upcoming impeachment trial. While other Republicans in the senate have condemned the impeachment effort Marco Rubio of Florida called it “stupid” Portman has adopted a more tempered, open-minded approach. 

Portman has said Trump “bears some responsibility for what occurred” during the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol. In that statement, he said about an impeachment trial: “I will do my duty as a juror and listen to the cases presented by both sides.”

Portman, familiar with the delicate negotiation process between the White House and Capitol Hill from his time with the first Bush administration, may play an important role with the current U.S. Senate’s relationship with President Biden.

“In these next two years, I will continue to be actively engaged,” Portman said in his Monday statement, “doing my best to provide hope as we try to get through the devastating coronavirus pandemic and doing my best to help bring our great country together, to help us heal, so we address the many challenges we face together.”



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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.