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Q&A: As Portman Steps Aside, Expect A Flood Of Senate Hopefuls

Sen. Rob Portman stunned the Ohio political world Monday with his announcement that he won’t run for reelection.

That leaves an open seat in 2022 as Democrats and Republicans vie for control of a closely divided Senate.

It may not be long before candidates start running, according to David Cohen, the interim director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

“It takes tens of millions of dollars to be able to compete for a seat of this magnitude,” he said, “so candidates have to start raising money immediately.”

In a conversation with ideastream’s Nick Castele, Cohen offered an early look at the race.

Do you think there was anybody who saw this coming?

I believe that the political establishment is extremely surprised by this, and I think it’s something that the Republican establishment really hadn’t considered. Rob Portman has won every election that he’s ever taken part in, and I think Republicans are really counting on 2022, being able to easily hold the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio.

In just a matter of hours, we saw tons of names being floated as possible candidates. On the Democratic side, folks like Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton. On the Republican side, Rep. Jim Jordan, a strong supporter of Donald Trump. Do you think that this is going to be a free-for-all next year?

I do. I really do. Because I think there’s nothing that attracts candidates more than an open seat…There are a number of very well-qualified candidates on both sides of the aisle. And I think Democrats, especially, are licking their chops, because they no longer have to take on Rob Portman, someone who seems really unbeatable.

There’s obviously been a lot of discussion about this since 2016, whether a Democratic candidate who is not named Sherrod Brown can win the state anymore. Do you think a Democrat still has a shot in Ohio, considering the way the electorate has embraced Trump for the past two presidential cycles?

I absolutely do. I mean, Sherrod Brown won reelection in 2018. That’s only two years ago. So the Sherrod Brown formula works in Ohio, and it’s not necessarily something that Sherrod Brown has a monopoly on. And so someone I’m thinking of, like a Tim Ryan, Congressman Tim Ryan. If he were to jump into this race, I think he is somebody that very much would play to the same people that Sherrod Brown does…Somebody like the [Ohio] House Minority Leader, Emilia Sykes, from the Akron area. I think she could be a very formidable candidate herself.

On the Republican side of things, Rob Portman has pretty establishment credentials. He is not a bombastic personality, very different from former President Trump. Do you think that Republican primary voters next year are going to be looking for somebody who is cut from the same cloth as Trump?

The honest answer is I have absolutely no idea, because a lot depends on where we are next year in terms of our country and our economy, and if there’s still a COVID crisis. A lot depends on whether former President Trump decides to create his own political party.

Are there other Republicans you think are worth watching as they consider whether to get into this race?

We have to, of course, start with Congressman Jim Jordan. Josh Mandel has already run for the U.S. Senate once. He lost to Sherrod Brown in 2012. He was in the 2018 race but pulled out of the primary. He’s certainly somebody to watch. Jim Renacci…he’s a former Congressman. Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor, is somebody that I think most observers believe is seriously contemplating getting into the race.

Portman supported Trump in 2020. Since then, he has said that the former president bears some responsibility for the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6. Do you think Portman’s decision not to run again gives us any insight into how he might vote in the impeachment trial when that goes before the Senate?

I don’t know if it gives us any insight, necessarily. But I do think that it frees a large burden off of him. He doesn’t have to worry about reelection. And when an elected official doesn’t have to worry about reelection, I think it really frees them up to behave and to vote in a way where they can really think about their own conscience, and think about what is right for the state or right for the country.

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