Jockeying for Ohio’s Senate Seat

By Jim Ellis

Jan. 28, 2021 — Monday’s surprise announcement that Sen. Rob Portman (R) will not seek re-election next year has ignited a flurry of activity and speculation from potential candidates and political observers alike. Some looking to challenge Gov. Mike DeWine (R) are now also beginning to survey and assess how an open US Senate candidate field might unfold.

Recent voter history suggests that the eventual Republican nominee will at least begin the general election campaign in the favorite’s role. The GOP, with a large number of statewide office holders, former elected officials, and a dozen sitting US House members, has an array of candidates from which to choose, and many will take the plunge.

For example, former US Rep. Jim Renacci, who held Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) to a 53-47 percent victory in the 2018 campaign and was reportedly looking to challenge Gov. DeWine in the 2022 Republican primary, may now set his sights on the open Senate seat.

Another ex-office holder, Pat Tiberi, who averaged 60.6 percent of the vote over nine elections from a Columbus area congressional district that former governor and presidential candidate John Kasich once held, still sits on more than $5 million in his federal campaign account even though he hasn’t been on the ballot since 2016.

It was widely believed that he was amassing a huge war chest to run against Sen. Brown in ’18, but family considerations led him to change his mind, resign from Congress and instead take the reins of the Ohio Business Roundtable.

Still another former elected official, ex-state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who lost the 2012 Senate election to Sen. Brown, was planning to run again in 2018 until leaving the race because of his wife’s health issue. Mandel raised almost $20 million for his Senate race eight years ago and has over $4 million in his campaign account even though he has not been a federal candidate in eight years.

Republicans hold all of the state’s constitutional offices. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Attorney General Dave Yost, state Treasurer Robert Sprague, and State Auditor Keith Faber are all credible potential US Senate candidates.

Several GOP congressional delegation members could be strong candidates as well. Several are making noises about the Senate race. Conservative activist Jim Jordan (R-Urbana), who was first elected to his 4th District House seat in 2006 and is now the ranking Republican member on the Judiciary Committee, is another potential Senate candidate sitting on a large campaign war chest of just over $5 million.

Other Republican members confirming they are at least assessing the Senate race are Reps. Bruce Wenstrup (R-Cincinnati), Bill Johnson (R-Marietta), and David Joyce (R-Russell Township). One member who said he would not run is Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Zanesville). State Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), a part owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball club, is also mentioned as a potential statewide candidate.

Another former sports figure, former Ohio State University head football coach and current Youngstown State University president Jim Tressel, also said he would not become a US Senate candidate.

The Democrats’ choices are more limited but certainly credible. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Warren/Youngstown) had a cup of coffee in the 2020 presidential primaries, and then went onto win a competitive 52-45 percent re-election campaign, certainly must be considered a strong potential Senate candidate.

Possibly looking at his seat being eliminated in reapportionment and redistricting, Rep. Ryan, though ending the election cycle with only $27,000 in the bank, may be more inclined to run statewide in the coming year. Previously, he has flirted several times with runs for Senate, governor, and even lieutenant governor, but each time retreated to his House re-election campaign.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whatley (D) has already announced that she is not seeking re-election to her current post in order to run statewide. She made this statement even before Sen. Portman made his retirement decision public.

In a statement to the New York Times, as reported in the Daily Kos Elections website, Whatley admitted to looking at both the governor and Senate races, but made a comment related to Rep. Jordan suggesting that she may now be leaning toward the Senate race. She was quoted as saying, “ … if Jim Jordan decides to run [for Senate], it is highly likely he will win that primary. We recognize that the soul of our state is at stake, and that’s a motivation to all of us.”

Just two days old, the Ohio Senate race is already generating much political talk. It will clearly become a premier race in the 2022 election cycle.

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