Citing Washington gridlock and worsening political polarization, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a fixture of the Republican Party establishment, announced on Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2022.
“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,” said Portman in a statement explaining what he said “was not an easy decision.”
“This is a tough time to be in public service,” Portman continued. “For many of the issues I am most passionate about, I will continue to make a difference outside of the Senate, beyond 2022. In the meantime, I am hopeful that President Biden will follow through on his inaugural pledge to reach across the aisle, and I am prepared to work with him and his administration if he does.”
It was a move few saw coming, taking even plugged-in Ohio GOP insiders by surprise. While there had been speculation that Portman would face a primary challenge, he was hardly on retirement watch and several GOP sources said that up until around three weeks ago, Portman's re-election campaign was operating as if it was still full speed ahead to 2022.
Portman did not buck his party much during the Donald Trump era, but he avoided a full-on embrace of the former president. A lawyer who served for both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush —and was the top trade representative and budget official for the second one—Portman was among Capitol Hill’s most visible reminders of that era of the GOP.
In his statement, Portman said he looked forward to focusing “all my energy on legislation and the challenges our country faces rather than on fundraising and campaigning” over the next two years. The announcement solidifies his status as one of the key GOP senators to watch ahead of Trump’s impeachment trial over his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
In a Jan. 13 statement, Portman reiterated his belief that Trump bore responsibility for what happened but expressed concern that a trial would be an obstacle to national unity. He voted to acquit Trump in his 2020 impeachment trial, but said he disapproved of the former president’s effort to pressure Ukraine’s president to do him political favors.
The sudden opening of the seat, which Portman has held since 2011, is poised to ever-so-slightly expand Democrats’ prospects to hold their Senate majority in the upcoming midterm elections. Republicans will now be defending three seats in competitive states due to retirements—the others are Pennsylvania and North Carolina—though the Buckeye State is a much tougher environment these days for Democrats. Though the other Ohio Senate seat is held by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, Donald Trump carried the state by an eight-point margin both in 2016 and 2020.
Indeed, Portman’s departure will set off a stampede into the primary among ambitious Republicans in a state with plenty of them. Democrats hold only four of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts and have a far thinner bench of possible candidates.
Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich