Just days into their newfound status as the minority party, Senate Republicans suffered two body blows that could badly complicate their chances of retaking control in 2022.
The first came Monday morning, with Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that he would retire in 2022 rather than seek a third term.
“This is a tough time to be in public service,” Portman said in announcing his decision. “For many of the issues I am most passionate about, I will continue to make a difference outside of the Senate, beyond 2022.”
The Portman news comes hard on the heels of a major Republican recruiting setback over the weekend, when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey told The New York Times he will not challenge Sen. Mark Kelly (D) next November.
“I’m not running for the United States Senate,” Ducey told the Times. “It’s a no. I’m 100 percent focused on being the governor of the state of Arizona. I’ve accepted the role as the chairman of the [Republican Governors Association]. So I’ve got a full-time job and then I’ve got a full-time job beyond that. And that’s what my focus is.”
Combine the two announcements, and the GOP’s quest to retake the majority they lost when Democrats swept both Georgia runoffs earlier this month is off to a decidedly rocky start.
Let’s take Portman first.
His retirement decision came as an absolute shock to political Washington – although maybe it shouldn’t have given the current state of the Republican Party.
Portman has been a stalwart member of the GOP establishment for decades. He served in the House from 1993 to 2005 and as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and US Trade Representative during George W. Bush’s administration. He ran for Senate in 2010 and won handily; in 2016 he crushed former Gov. Ted Strickland by 19 points in what Democrats had hoped would be a serious race.
But during the Trump years, Portman’s brand of pragmatic conservatism had fallen very much out of favor. And the Ohio Republican’s discontent about the state of political affairs is written everywhere in his retirement announcement.
“I don’t think any Senate office has been more successful in getting things done, but honestly, 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,” said Portman.
His decision takes a seat that would have likely been of little concern for Republicans – given Portman’s demonstrated electoral successes and the state’s clear GOP lean – and puts it squarely in the potentially competitive category.
All eyes – especially those in Washington – will immediately turn to Rep. Jim Jordan, perhaps the most prominent supporter of ex-President Donald Trump’s in the House and someone who would likely have considerable appeal in a Republican primary in the state. There will be plenty of other names mentioned – Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, to name two – but much hinges on what Jordan decides.
If Jordan runs and wins the nomination, the seat becomes more imperiled for Republicans. While Ohio is clearly no longer the swing state that it was in the early 2000s – Trump beat Joe Biden by 8 points there in 2020 – there is still a path to Democrats winning statewide, as Sen. Sherrod Brown has proven.
And that path involves Republicans nominating a candidate that is too far to the ideological right – allowing the Democratic nominee to co-opt the not-insignificant political center. Which, in theory, is exactly what might happen if Republicans nominate Jordan.
While there is still lots (and lots) we don’t know about how the Ohio seat will shake out, what we do know is that the seat is considerably more vulnerable today than it was yesterday.
Now to Arizona.
Kelly’s decisive win over appointed Sen. Martha McSally was in a special election last November, meaning that he has to run again for a full six-year term in November 2022. Which is no easy task, especially when you consider how competitive the state is at the federal level. (Biden beat Trump by less than 11,000 votes of out of more than 3.2 million cast.)
But Kelly is a formidable candidate – particularly on the fundraising side, where he raked in more than $100 million in 2020. Beating him will be no easy task.
Especially when you consider that:
1) The Republican bench in Arizona is surprisingly thin beyond Ducey.
2) The state GOP is at war with itself – with Trump favorite Kelli Ward being reelected as chair of the state party over the weekend and approving censures of Ducey as well as Cindy McCain.
The Republican nightmare scenario is if Ward becomes a candidate. Ward ran in a primary against Sen. John McCain in 2016 and challenged then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R) in 2018. (Flake eventually retired and Republicans chose McSally over Ward.)
Ward, like Jordan in Ohio, would likely start out as the favorite in a Republican primary due to her hard-line support of Trump. “The Arizona Legislature should DE-CERTIFY the false results of the 2020 election until at which time a full and thorough audit of the vote can be performed,” the Arizona GOP’s official Twitter account tweeted earlier this month. “Do it quick. Make Democrats lose their collective minds as they rage against transparency and integrity. Big win for AZ!”
But Ward as the Republican nominee against Kelly would be a massive problem for Republicans, likely costing them one of their few offensive opportunities on the 2022 map.
Yes, it’s early to talk about how voters will feel come November 2022. But make no mistake: Portman’s retirement and Ducey’s no-go decision are twin body blows for Republicans in the Senate already reeling from what happened in Georgia.