With Portman Retiring… Should We Be Bracing For A Senator Jim Jordan?

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) attends a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department and a probe into the politicization of the department under Attorney General William... WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) attends a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department and a probe into the politicization of the department under Attorney General William Barr on Capitol Hill, June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 25, 2021 6:07 p.m.

After Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) announced his unexpected retirement Monday, seemingly every Ohio politician with a pulse blasted out a statement thanking him for his service and teasing the possibility of a run.

One politician remained mum, but was on the tip of most observers’ tongues: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).

The rightwing politician known for his hatred of blazers and devotion to former President Donald Trump was thought to be considering a primary challenge to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) who is, like Portman’s seat, up in 2022. The open Senate seat may be even more attractive. 

“He’s the loudest and best known of the contenders,” said Tom Sutton, a professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University outside of Cleveland.

“On the Republican side, likely at the top of the list is Representative Jim Jordan,” agreed Nancy Martorano Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

Jordan has become one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, using his committee positions to take on opponents to the former President’s agenda in a raised, adversarial, auctioneer-like cross examination. Most recently, he’s become a lead purveyor of the election fraud conspiracy theory, only two weeks ago having to be browbeat by his Democratic colleagues into grudgingly admitting that President Joe Biden won the election.

Were Jordan to immediately claim his front runner status, it would speak volumes about the lack of Republican introspection after the Capitol insurrection, and the party’s greater apathy towards purging Trumpism from its ranks. 

The party’s embrace of Jordan’s brand of extremism, though, may prove to be a boon to Democrats in the state, who have lost ground from the days when Ohio was considered a national bellwether.

“What’s key here is that while Ohio gave Trump a 470,000 vote margin in 2020 and a win in the state, it doesn’t necessarily mean all those Trump voters are the same Jim Jordan-type Trump supporter,” Sutton told TPM. “There were many loyal Republicans who voted for the Republican candidate, not necessarily for Trump.” 

That aversion from more traditional Republicans may come into play in what’s sure to be a jam-packed Republican primary. 

“Senator Portman has announced his retirement early enough that there is ample time to raise money and build a campaign apparatus,” Miller said. “U.S. Senate seats don’t come open every day, and candidates have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it happens.”

She reeled off a dozen names that came to mind: former Rep. Jim Renacci who was “rumored” to be planning to primary DeWine, Rep. Steve Stivers and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (“sleeper contenders”), Jon Husted who was initially planning to seek reelection as Lieutenant Governor, Josh Mandel who ran against Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2018 and 2012 or even JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Sutton’s list is just as long, with much crossover. He also named Husted, calling him a top-two contender, who, with a long career in state office, “would represent the more classic conservative, sober-minded Republicans of Ohio.” Husted shooed off reporters with a noncommittal statement Monday about talking with Portman, DeWine and his family before making any decisions.

Brown’s continued success suggests the increasingly red state is not yet a guaranteed Republican lock. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), whose district might be wiped out or see its political composition change when the boundaries are redrawn this year, is clearly considering the seat as an off-ramp. 

“I haven’t made a decision yet but I’m looking seriously at it,” he tweeted, adding a link to a fundraising page. 

Ryan, whose unsuccessful presidential bid raised his profile nationally, is the kind of candidate Sutton thinks could hold his own against a fringier Republican like Jordan. “The only potentially competitive scenario is if Jim Jordan becomes the nominee and runs against a person with a few more ounces of sanity,” he said. 

Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, gained some prominence after dealing with a tornado and shooting in 2019, and has already ruled out another mayoral term. The Democratic bench beyond that, Miller said, “is not that deep.” 

Democrats’ greatest hope may be the time Portman’s surprise announcement left for the party to pull itself together. And with the backdrop of a Senate ground to halt by Republican obstruction, the prospect of flipping what was, until today, a very safe red seat may take on greater importance. 

That obstruction, the difficulty in getting anything done, is the rationale Portman gave for his abrupt announcement. At 65, he’s a spring chicken in Senate years and would have gone into reelection the heavy favorite. 

Sutton mused that Portman, who spent his Senate tenure largely at the back of the group, may be freeing himself up to vote his conscience — maybe even for Trump’s conviction — without worrying about a primary challenger. But, he conceded, it was probably more about the lack of politically viable Biden administration initiatives for him to get on board with as a GOPer.

“I think his decision reveals more about where he sees the Republican Party is going and the opportunities for policy-making than it does his reelection chances,” Miller added.

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