The List: Predicting the next moves in the Plain Dealer-Portman courtship

Get a room

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Sen. Krysten Sinema looks at Sen. Rob Portman in the same way the Plain Dealer has this last week.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an editorial last week in which it requested (begged?) outgoing Sen. Rob Portman to reconsider his decision to retire from office. The editorial cited “the ugliness that is the Republican primary” for the senator’s seat, writing, “Perhaps you see, as we do, in this 2022 Ohio Republican primary contest for your seat a continuation of that descent into darkness for a once-proud party.”

OK, so a single editorial is fine, I guess. Even one that ignores the reality that a Portman administration wouldn’t be much of a departure from one headed by Josh Mandel or J.D. Vance, at least from a legislative context. (A reminder that Portman voted with Trump more than 88 percent of the time.) 

But then things got… weird. 

Following the editorial, Chris Quinn, editor and vice president of content for the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, posted an open letter in which he requested that readers email Portman and ask him to reconsider his retirement. (Portman, for his part, has not hedged on his decision.) 

“We’ve watched in wonder as people we know not to be stupid stand behind statements they know to be false, statements that contradict things they have said in the past, all to win a seat,” Quinn wrote. “Josh Mandel, Jane Timken, Mike Gibbons, J.D. Vance and Bernie Moreno would have tossed out the voters’ will to preserve a president who did not win re-election.”

It’s at this point that we’d like to remind the Plain Dealer that if they’re so concerned with the state of the current senatorial election, and in particular the Republican candidates, there are actually Democrats running to replace Portman they could champion, too, including Tim Ryan and Morgan Harper.

But even focusing on the paper’s statement about how this Republican slate would have ignored the will of the voters, who overwhelmingly elected Joe Biden in 2020, glosses over the reality that Portman wasn’t exactly first out of the gate in declaring Trump a presidential loser. The Ohio senator’s statement to that fact arrived 20 days after the election, long after every notable news outlet had called Biden’s win. 

Indeed, the Plain Dealer’s repeated pleas for Portman to stick around seem more about preserving a congenial tone than anything else, though the outgoing senator has maintained this, in part, by channeling Mr. Magoo for much of his time in office (aka "I didn't see/hear that"). I mean, how many stories are out there about Portman ducking hard questions from a reporter by saying he was late for lunch, or that actually, he didn’t hear that thing that he almost certainly did hear.

Take for example this Jan. 2021 feature in Loveland Magazine, which recalls the 2008 rally for then-presidential candidate John McCain. The event featured radio host Bill Cunningham, who, among other things, made bigoted cracks about Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank while onstage. “Willie,” Portman said, taking the mic, “you’re out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him. But I’ve got to tell you, Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important.” When McCain later denounced Cunningham’s comments, Portman demurred, telling reporters, “I was backstage so I didn’t hear everything [Cunningham] said,” which, chef’s kiss.

Regardless, it appears as if none of this will slow the Plain Dealer’s current roll. Here’s how we envision the newspaper’s Portman courtship playing out over the next couple of weeks.

Jan. 24

The Plain Dealer creates a Spotify playlist dubbed “Don’t ‘Rob’ Us of You (Portman Is the Real Heart of It All),” featuring songs by Player (“Baby Come Back”), Lisa Loeb (“Stay”) and Elton John (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”), among others. Of the mix, Portman says, "I've heard of it, but I haven't heard it."

Jan. 26

Video of a weeping man holding a boombox aloft outside of Portman’s home appears online and quickly goes viral. He is quickly identified as a notable Plain Dealer columnist.

Jan. 28

The Plain Dealer editorial team leaves a half-dozen rambling messages on the answering machine in Portman’s office, each one growing more desperate and pathetic until an unidentified female on the call can be heard saying, “Wait, are we Mikey?” as the audio drops out abruptly.

Jan. 29

A prominent sports columnist writes what appears to be a standard feature in which he asks himself a series of questions about Baker Mayfield and the 2022 Browns. Within hours, one eagle-eyed reader cracks a code, however, taking the first letter from each sentence to spell out the plea embedded in the column: “DONT GO SENATOR ROB PORTMAN OHIO HEARTS YOU.”

Feb. 1

The Plain Dealer's editor in chief carves “PORTMAN 4 EVA” into his chest during a company-wide Zoom. He later appears on the porch of the Portman family home, where the senator watches through a peephole as the EIC repeatedly screams at him to “OPEN THE (BLEEPING) DOOR.”

Feb. 1

Failing in those efforts, the EIC uses his belt to secure himself to the underside of the Portman family car, unbeknownst to the senator, who then absconds with his family to a secluded waterside retreat. Following a confrontation and early morning fight on the riverbank, the senator manages to subdue the journalist, telling him that, despite the full-court press, he would still be leaving office as planned. “Go ahead,” replied the visibly broken editor. “I just don’t give a damn.” In reality, he did. He really, really did.