It’s a difficult time to be a decent person in the United States Senate. That’s one explanation for the surprising announcement from Ohio Senator Rob Portman—former U.S. Trade Representative and OMB director who served 12 years in the House and will end up with 12 in the Senate—that he wouldn’t be running for a third term. The potential line of those to replace him is well over a dozen people long, including J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, whom Sen. Mitch McConnell urged unsuccessfully to run against incumbent Sherrod Brown in 2018.
The only confirmed non-candidate is former Gov. John Kasich and the only unconfirmed frontrunner is Rep. Jim Jordan, the most ambitious of the bunch, who answers “as much as is humanly possible,” to the question of “How Trumpy are you?” Trump’s chief defender during his first impeachment trial, he was rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Portman is a fiscal conservative with a genial demeanor that helps the medicine go down. He was known, pre-Trump, to work across the aisle and do the grunt work on tax and financial legislation along with his signature causes, sex trafficking and the opioid epidemic. Why with an excellent chance of winning a third term—he won in 2016 by 21 points to Trump’s 8—would he up and retire?
Not to make room for the shirtsleeved Gym (get it?) Jordan, who stops yelling when he sleeps. It’s his race to lose if he wants to give up his House seat and put his name recognition and fundraising chops to the test.
But he does have some negatives, like being the opposite of the quiet Portman and being, according to former and still popular Speaker John Boehner, “an idiot” and a noisy one. His tenure as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University from 1987 to 1995 hangs over him since an investigation found that team physician Dr. Richard Strauss sexually abused 177 students, some of whom complained directly to Jordan. Eight wrestlers testified that they asked Jordan to protect them from the doctor’s “extensive groin examinations” and overly frequent showers. Jordan denies being told. He says the complainants, who were student-athletes in his care when they were assaulted, are a bunch of “political partisans” with a “vendetta.”
Speaking in a hotel in Cincinnati where he ice skated as a child, Portman gave the usual excuse of wanting to spend more time at home for calling it quits, plausible but not sufficient even though home is a 100-acre farm near a rustic inn his family has run for many years. He cited “partisan gridlock” that Trump “didn’t help” but otherwise left him out of it, a state of affairs that could only improve with Trump himself in forced retirement.
You don’t have to look for the real reasons Portman’s ready to leave. Fellow establishment Republican Rep. Liz Cheney is more likely to be primaried and driven from her leadership position for voting her conscience than the new Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is to be isolated for her ties to QAnon. CNN just reported on her 2019 tweets suggesting that Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama be executed. The Republican party in Ohio has become as Trumpy as Trump himself, like the party in Oregon that just called the Capitol riots a “false flag,” and in Arizona where three Republicans — Governor Doug Ducey, former senator Jeff Flake, and the wife of another former senator, Cindy McCain—have just been censured by the state party. Stray in the slightest from blind devotion to Trump and you are dead to him and his zealous followers.
But as Ohio trended right over the last four years, so has Portman, to a point. He never read a Trump tweet closely enough to comment on it, saw no rallies, and must have bypassed Fox for the History Channel. He voted to acquit President Trump at his first trial for pressuring the Ukraine president to make dirt on Joe Biden and his son.
With the second trial starting on Feb. 8, and after a riot in the Capitol he’s worked in for years, Portman has sounded more like Romney than Lindsey Graham, saying he will “do his duty as a juror” and “listen to the cases presented by both sides.”
Just hinting that there are fine arguments on both sides could put Portman on Trump’s lengthy revenge docket headlined presently by Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who couldn’t see his way clear to “find” 11,000 missing ballots with Trump’s name on them, the 10 House members who voted to impeach, and of course any senators who betray him at his new trial. Anyone can be added to the list if they aren’t as credulously devoted as the MyPillow guy, just banned for life from Twitter for peddling election conspiracies more preposterous than Rudy Giuliani’s. For his devotion, Rudy is being sued for $1.3 billion by Dominion Voting Systems for defamation.
Portman is the kind of Republican the party needs but Trump can’t tolerate. The GOP needs to figure out whether they are going to continue to live in fear of him or, while they have the chance, purge the party of a madman who gave full rein to a mob to destroy the Capitol and those governing within it. When comparatively reasonable members like Portman, Richard Burr, and Pat Toomey jump ship before their time, leaving three open seats in their wake, the party needs a bigger boat.
To their enduring regret, the GOP didn’t nip Trump in the bud back when he first brought American carnage to Washington. Surely they could find the gumption to do it now. They just have to pry the tiller from the hand of the disgraced former president, bobbing in a small pond hundreds of miles away.