Assessing Ohio

By Jim Ellis

April 9, 2021 — Ever since Sen. Rob Portman (R) announced his retirement in late January, the open Ohio Senate race has attracted a great deal of national political attention.

With the first quarter now at an end and Federal Election Commission financial disclosure reports due on April 15, candidates who have found fundraising success in the previous 12 weeks are informally releasing their dollar totals. Such is the case for the major Ohio contenders.

At this point, the Democratic field already seems to be crystallizing. With a weak political bench in the state, the nomination favorite appears to be Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Warren/ Youngstown). Ryan is in even stronger position because a potential opponent, former Ohio Health Department Director Amy Acton (D) – who was actually faring slightly better against the Republican slate than he according to a March 18-19 Public Policy Polling survey – announced last week that she would not run.

For his part, Ryan originally said he would formally announce his Senate campaign in March, but later indicated that he would not be declaring so soon. Seeing that his first quarter political receipts exceeded $1.2 million suggests that he has been working hard on the fundraising circuit, giving us a further clue as to his actual intention.

The up-and-coming potential Republican candidate appears to be six-term Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Columbus). His aggressive fundraising resulted in $1.4 million obtained for the quarter and added to his previous $1 million cash-on-hand figure, gives him a base war chest of over $2.4 million to begin a statewide effort with millions more to come. The congressman says he will make a final decision about entering the Senate race later in the year.

Former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, however, had an even better fundraising sprint, obtaining just over $2.1 million. Ex-state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who held over $1.6 million in his campaign account from previous campaigns, brought in $1.3 million during Q1 of 2021. Therefore, the GOP top tier contenders are all financially strong. Two other potential entries are author J.D. Vance and US Rep. Mike Turner (R-Dayton).

Stivers, stressing that he has not yet made the decision to run for the Senate, said in an interview with the news site that, “it’s a huge statement that someone who’s not in the race can outraise announced candidates.”

The Columbus area congressman also appears to be in a potentially strong position in terms of the political set-up. Both Mandel and Timken will be appealing to the Trump wing of the Ohio Republican Party, and thus could split the faction. That would realistically allow Rep. Stivers, campaigning closer to the center than the other two, to win the primary with only a plurality of the vote.

Stivers also has the advantage of campaigning and becoming well known over the past dozen years in the Columbus area, Ohio’s largest population region and the only section of the state with sustained population growth.

Returning to the Democrats, Rep. Ryan, as he did in his brief presidential campaign, will emphasize his union and working families credentials. This will be a tougher sell in 2022, considering Republicans have been performing better in the state despite many other regions of the country trending toward the political left.

With early surveys again suggesting a close race, as Ohio polls almost always do, the Republican candidates begin with slight leads of between two and four points over Rep. Ryan, at least according to the aforementioned PPP study.

The eastern Ohio congressman also has a history of considering and preparing to run statewide but then retreating to his House seat. In the past he has tested the waters for Senate, governor, and lieutenant governor only to back away each time. In 2020, he had the luxury of dipping his toe into the presidential contest but withdrew well in advance of the Ohio candidate filing deadline.

With redistricting on the horizon for 2022, the congressman may not have a CD to which to return. Ohio is expected to lose one seat in reapportionment, and at least one scenario suggests that Rep. Ryan’s 13th District could be the one eliminated. That conclusion is far from certain, and as the Census Bureau continues to experience delays in completing the national count and providing the states with their new data, the chance of redistricting not occurring in this cycle is becoming more than a just an extreme possibility.

We can count on the Ohio Senate campaign continuing to attract national attention most likely through Election Day 2022. It will be one of many key Senate races in what promises to be a wildly important midterm election cycle, and one in which literally every individual Senate race could mean a change in majority status.

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