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Race To 2022: Rob Portman's Retirement Opens Door To Competitive Senate Race

In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, arrives as the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
Associated Press
In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, arrives as the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has announced he will not be seeking re-election in 2022, putting his seat up for grabs in the perennial battleground state.

Portman says the country is becoming increasingly polarized, where officials are being forced to move farther to the right and left politically. "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," Portman said Monday morning in Cincinnati.

Portman has served in the U.S. Senate since 2011, and won re-election in 2016 against former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. He was also on the short list as a possible running mate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Portman's terms as a member of the U.S. House from 1993-2005 came in between serving in the White House for President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.

Rob Secaur, Ohio Republican Party executive director, says Portman had a reputation of being a statesman who was deliberate with his decisions.

"I think there is a tendency to be knee jerk to a lot of the stuff," Secaur says. "And I always appreciate the fact that Rob would wait for the facts, wait for things to play out a little bit before making this decision. I always found him to be a principled leader, but part of the principle was to hear all those things out and to weigh the pros and cons of every issue."

Mary Anne Sharkey, a longtime Ohio GOP consultant, says Portman is a mainstream conservative from the same school of politics as former Republican governors George Voinovich and Bob Taft.

"In the long view of history I think he'll be treated favorably, because he did indeed work on things like a balanced budget and lower taxes," Sharkey says. "And his votes were clearly meant to benefit his consittuents.

Portman gained a reputation for being a potential swing vote in close Senate debates, such as voting against a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Some of his legisltative priorities included expanding health care for people with substance use disorder and fighting human trafficking, and he introduced bills that would ban government shutdowns.

"Rob and I have worked together on issues that matter to Ohioans, from protecting the health of Lake Erie, to better enforcing our trade laws, to helping Ohioans who are struggling with addiction," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in a statement. "We've not always agreed with one another, but we've always been able to put our differences aside to do what's best for our state."

But Democrats disagree with labeling Portman as a moderate, pointing to his votes against expanding background checks for gun sales in 2013 and confirming President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominations.

"I think Rob Portman was very good at convincing folks that he was some sort of sensible, moderate swing vote in the Senate when really he was far from that," says Michael McGovern, managing director for Progress Ohio. "For years, we've seen him really just go along with whatever Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump needed in a given moment."

Monday's announcement immediately sparked wide speculation as to who might run for the open Senate seat in 2022. McGovern says the Democrats have a deep bench with many progressive candidates with a shot at winning that race, and new Ohio Democratic Party chair Liz Walters says Portman's departure makes it "even more competitive."

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has already said he is "seriously considering" a run.

But Secaur counters, "I think the Democrats would be dreaming if they thought they could flip this Senate seat in '22, you know, regardless of who decides to run for the seat. Ohio has been trending our direction."

Secaur noted many Republicans are in the process of thinking about a possible run, which could include Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) or former state treasurer and two-time Senate candidate Josh Mandel. Even Lt. Gov. Jon Husted left the door open.

"I'll talk to Gov. DeWine and I'll talk to Sen. Portman, but most of all I'll talk to my family and see if this is something that makes sense," Husted said Monday. "But beyond that, I've given no thought to it."

Portman will remain in office for his final two years, which includes participating in Trump's impeachment trial.

When asked if Portman's announcements signals a possible decision to convict in that trial, the senator's staff noted a statement Portman made on January 13: "I will do my duty as a juror and listen to the cases presented by both sides."