Ryan, Johnson Weigh Senate Bid for Portman’s Seat

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that he would not seek a third term in 2022 surprised many area political observers – and left both congressmen now serving the Mahoning Valley in the position of considering whether to run for the now open seat.

Portman, whose political resume includes serving in the U.S. House of Representatives in several posts during the administration of former President George W. Bush, cited “partisan gridlock” among the factors that contributed to his decision, which he announced Monday morning.

“We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground,” he said. “This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but a problem that has gotten worse over the past few decades.”

In separate statements, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6 Ohio, each confirmed they were eyeing the seat.

“I’m overwhelmed by supporters who are reaching out to encourage me to run for the Senate,” Ryan said Monday afternoon via Twitter. “I haven’t made a decision yet but I’m looking seriously at it. Ohio deserves leaders who fight for working families.”

Ryan’s statement followed a fundraising email Monday morning identifying the opening as “a must-win seat for Democrats if we’re going to hold the Senate in 2022.” Democrats, with independents who caucus with the party, and Republicans hold a 50-50 split in the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break ties, giving them nominal control.

“Ohio will be the center of the political map in 2022,” with “competitive races” for Senate, governor and House seats statewide, the fundraising email stated.

About three hours after Portman’s 10:30 a.m. announcement, Johnson issued a statement praising Portman as “a champion for Ohio” and acknowledging he is considering a bid to succeed him.

Johnson positioned himself as a staunch Trump ally. He was among more than 100 House Republicans who voted against certifying election results in states that Biden won.

“Recently, I’ve been humbled by those asking me to consider additional ways to serve the hardworking people of the great state of Ohio,” he said. “I am seriously considering this opportunity, and over the next few weeks I will talk to my family, friends and supporters to determine if this is the right time and the right opportunity.”

Capri Cafaro, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and a former Ohio Senate minority leader who represented Trumbull County , said she “was not entirely surprised” by Portman’s decision.

Portman “seemed very pained and uncomfortable in many of his public statements in trying to navigate today’s hyperpartisan environment in Washington, as well as Ohio’s embrace” of the doctrine and ideology of former President Donald Trump.

Portman’s decision creates a rare political opportunity – an open U.S. Senate seat.

“It’s going to be a crowded race,” Cafaro said.

Portman was skilled at walking a fine line, occasionally indirectly criticizing Trump but “never enough to really fire up the Make America Great Again people” to come after him, said Paul Sracic, chairman of Youngstown State University’s department of politics and international relations.

Sracic described Portman’s announcement as “stunning.” He likened Portman politically to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, both of whom are conservative but open to working with Democrats and not “doctrinaire or bomb throwers.”

Portman is “clearly a moderate conservative” whom Sracic contrasted with U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-4 Ohio, a conservative firebrand and fervent Trump supporter. People like Jordan might represent the future of the Republican Party more than those like Portman, he speculated.

Portman might not have wanted to face a primary challenge from a more Trump-aligned opponent and did not think he could move his positions enough to attract Trump’s voters, Sracic said. He recalled his own surprise when Portman, largely seen as an advocate of free trade, in his 2016 re-election campaign came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump opposed.

“You kind of knew in your heart [Portman] was probably a supporter of it but he was forced politically to go against that,” he said.

The wide-open seat will present a challenge for the Ohio Democratic Party’s new leader, said Joyce Kale-Pesta, chairwoman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party. Liz Walters took over he statewide party less than two weeks ago.

Democrats have “a great slate of possible candidates,” said Kathy DiCristofaro, vice-chairwoman of the Trumbull County Democratic Party, said. The first one who comes to her mind is Ryan.

“I know he understands our issues,” she said. “He knows all areas of Ohio. He knows what we need to do to move forward.”

Ryan, who has been mentioned as a potential statewide candidate since 2006, briefly mounted a bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination before ending his campaign and endorsing Joe Biden. He also ran for House speaker.

More recently, he’s gained national exposure in the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters objecting to Congress’ certification of the 2020 election’s results. He is the chairman of the chairman of the legislative branch subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees funding for the Capitol Police.

“Half the running statewide is getting your name known,” Sracic remarked.

Another advantage Ryan has over other Ohio Democrats is that he is able to transfer funds from his congressional campaign account to one for another federal race, such as U.S. Senate, Cafaro said. Other Democrats she sees potentially running include Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, who represents Ohio’s 3rd congressional district.

One factor that could influence Ryan to run for the Senate seat is the redrawing of congressional districts following the 2020 Census. Ohio is likely to lose one of its House seats. “With reapportionment, his district is probably gone,” Sracic said.

Johnson’s recognition in Mahoning and Trumbull counties might be an advantage in drawing those recent converts to the Republican Party, Sracic said. He also has a military background and is a “very loyal” Trump ally, evidenced by his vote against certification of the election results.

“The tough thing is he really doesn’t have any statewide name recognition,” Sracic said. Geographically, his district is more exposed to the Pittsburgh media market.

Other Republican names include Jordan, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, former Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and former congressman Jim Renacci.

Cafaro said she’s unsure how many people might be familiar with Johnson, but acknowledged he has a “regional competitiveness” because his congressional district covers so many counties. “He covers so much of the eastern portion of the state,” she said.

Kale-Pesta wasn’t sure about a Ryan bid. Ryan narrowly won reelection last year with 52.5% of the vote and lost the county where he resides, Trumbull County.

“To leave the house would be a loss for us and might open up a seat for Republicans to take,” she added.

Cafaro counters that Ryan’s ability to win in counties that are leaning more Republican “says something and that’s something he can build upon,” allowing him to position himself as someone who can connect with all Ohioans.

The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber has “a very strong relationship” with the senator, President/CEO Tom Humphries said Monday afternoon. He worked with the chamber on international issues and “stepped up every time” when asked regarding Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

“He’s definitely one of our friends and he will be missed,” Humphries said.

Though he acknowledged Ryan might have his eyes on the seat because of redistricting, he questioned whether the congressman might opt for the governor’s race instead, in part because of the number of Democrats also expected to run for the nomination. Ryan enjoys wide visibility because of his presidential and House speaker bids and his visibility along the Interstate 77 corridor because his district extends to Akron.

“He has to decide which thing he has the best shot at,” he said.

Johnson’s seat looks pretty secure in redistricting, but he acknowledged that the congressman “could serve as one of the very strong potential people” for the Senate seat. Johnson has a lot of counties in his district but they are sparsely populated.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, issued a statement acknowledging cooperative efforts with Portman on issues such as protecting the health of Lake Erie, enforcement of trade laws and helping Ohioans who are struggling with addiction.

“We’ve not always agreed with one another. Bbut we’ve always been able to put our differences aside to do what’s best for our state,” he said.

Portman “worked tirelessly on behalf of Ohioans” during his two terms in the Senate and has been “a key partner on helping Ohio with federal COVID-19 relief and other pandemic-related issues,” DeWine said in a statement.

“Senator Portman and I have had similar policy priorities to help Ohio families, from tackling the opioid crisis and the scourge of human trafficking to protecting Lake Erie and Ohio’s other natural wonders. Fran and I wish Rob and Jane and their family the best in their future endeavors,” he said.

Jane Timken, chairwoman of the Ohio Republican Party, called Portman’s service to the nation and the Republican Party invaluable.

“His leadership and temperament will be missed in the halls of the U.S. Senate and amongst Ohio Republicans. While we have huge shoes to fill in the U.S. Senate, I thank Senator Portman for his service and hope all Ohioans will join me in recognizing his accomplishments that furthered our great state,” she said.

Democrats took a dimmer view of the outgoing senator.

The Trumbull Democratic Party’s DiCristofaro found “hypocritical” Portman’s reference to civility and political discourse in his announcement, given his silence for years on Trump’s rhetoric.

“He didn’t speak out or call Trump out until he saw where the numbers were going, when it was politically expedient,” she said.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters was no less harsh in her assessment.

“This was always going to be a competitive race, and now it’s even more competitive,” she said in an email.

“Over the past four years, Rob Portman has been one of Donald Trump’s biggest defenders, so his attempt today to rewrite that history is ridiculous. This is the guy who, when asked about Trump’s decision to attack peaceful protesters with tear gas, said he was ‘late for lunch.’ This is the guy who backed Mitch McConnell’s theft of a Supreme Court seat from President Barack Obama,” Walters said.

“If Portman wants to complain about the death of civility and the triumph of partisan gridlock, he should take a long, hard look in the mirror and think about what he wants to be his legacy.”

Pictured: In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, arrives as the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.