Local Politics: Ohio could be a bellwether for the future of the Republican Party

Craig Calcaterra
Sen. Rob Portman, pictured during a committee meeting in June

Sen. Rob Portman’s surprise announcement that he will not seek a third term turned what looked to be a walkover re-election into a wide-open race. Well, notthat wide-open, as one can be forgiven for being skeptical about the moribund Ohio Democratic Party's ability to compete in a statewide election when someone not named Sherrod Brown is on the ballot. But it's certainly more wide open than it stood to be if Portman had wanted to remain in his job.

For now, however, I want to focus on the Republicans. Their side of this is far more interesting anyway, partially because whoever wins that primary should be favored to win the seat given recent trends. But mostly because the person who emerges as the frontrunner for the nomination will tell us an awful lot about the direction of the Republican Party in the post-Trump era, and that's something in desperate need of a vibe check.

In the wake of Donald Trump's defeat and reluctant departure from office there are essentially two Republican parties: the Republican establishment consisting of guys like Portman, Gov. Mike DeWine and whoever else the Chamber of Commerce backs at the moment, and the faction of far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who fanatically support Trump and who, while perhaps not endorsing violent coups aimed at overturning democratic elections, think that it's at least worth hearing out those who do.

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To date, Ohio has tended to favor the former group, at least in statewide elections. The closest thing to the latter we've elected to statewide office are former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who worked with Trump's transition team four years ago, and former State Auditor and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who attempted to align herself with Trump when she ran for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018. Each of those two reached their political zeniths before Trumpism hit the scene, however, and they have lost elections and/or fallen out of view since. While Ohio certainly has some high-profile Trumpists, like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, these politicians tend to represent heavily conservative, heavily gerrymandered districts. Apart from Trump himself, that sort of candidate hasn't really been tested in a statewide Ohio race.

In light of that, one might assume that a Portman-type a mostly moderate member of the non-loony wing of the party, at least by appearances (Portman still voted with Trump more than 88 percent of the time) would have an advantage heading into 2022. And I have no doubt that Portman himself and other relatively moderate Republicans will work to put their weight behind such a candidate in the run-up to next year's primary. However, someone who has spent most of her time dealing with the grass roots of the Ohio Republican party over the past several years believes that Ohio Republicans don't want your standard, run-of-the-mill moderate and are ready to fall in with Trump and follow his lead going forward.

"President Donald J. Trump is the leader of our Party," former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken said in her letter of resignation last Friday. Timken, who almost certainly plans to run for Portman's seat, vowed to "advance conservative, America First policies to strengthen Ohio." 

Translation: "I'm going to try to be Ohio's Donald Trump." Given how, even in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, national Republicans are showing no real signs of abandoning Trump and Trumpist messaging, there's no reason to believe that Timken will be alone in running as a Trumpist in the primary.

Increasingly red Ohio is no longer the national bellwether state that it used to be, but given a senate primary that seems poised to be the most high-profile test of Trumpism's lasting appeal between now and the next presidential election, we certainly stand to be a bellwether for the future of the Republican Party.