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Analysis: Portman's Departure Shows How Much GOP Has Changed Under Trump

J. Scott Applewhite

In one very important way, it is not at all surprising that Rob Portman has decided to end his long career on Capitol Hill after two terms in the Senate.

He has been, for the most part, a mainstream Republican throughout his years in Congress – six terms in the House, and in his second term in the Senate.

That's really not a happy place for a mainstreamer like Portman to be in these days. The heavy hand of Donald Trump still influences many of his colleagues and it has poisoned the well when it comes to reaching across the aisle and finding common ground with Democrats.

Portman summed it up in his Monday statement announcing he would not run for re-election in 2022.

"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," Portman said.

He's not the only mainstream-type Republican in Congress to say he has had enough – both Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina have said they won't run for re-election in 2022.

I remember being in the living room of Rob and Jane Portman's home in Hyde Park in early 1993 – a house they would soon move from because of their growing family.

Longtime Second District congressman Willis Gradison resigned from Congress to become head of the Health Insurance Association. It set off a mad scramble of Southwest Ohio Republicans to run in a special primary election for Gradison's seat in that heavily Republican District.

Portman, at age 37, was not a political novice when he announced his candidacy. He had worked in President George H.W. Bush's White House as associate White House counsel and director of legislative affairs. He worked alongside his high school buddy from Indian Hill, Joe Hagin, and the two of them became favorites in the Bush White House – particularly of first lady Barbara Bush.

But he seemed nervous as all get-out that morning with a crowd of reporters and TV cameras in his home.

The nervousness didn't last long. He was smooth as silk in a crowded GOP primary field. He won the primary, defeated a token Democratic opponent and won re-election easily six times before leaving to join the administration of George W. Bush – first as U.S. trade representative and later as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In 2010, with a Democrat, Barack Obama, in the White House, Portman ran for the U.S. Senate and won easily.

When he ran for re-election in 2016, he put together a textbook campaign, one of the most successful in Ohio political history, defeating former Governor Ted Strickland by a whopping 21 percentage points.

It is worth noting that, while Portman was winning a second term by 21 percentage points, Trump won Ohio by an eight point margin.

In other words, Rob Portman was more popular with Ohio voters than Donald Trump could ever dream of being.

Nonetheless, the presence of Trump in the White House the past four years has been an albatross around the neck of Portman.

He tried to dance gingerly around Trump. He was only infrequently critical of him, and mildly at that. Part of that was his desire to not make waves and do his job as a legislator. The rest was pure political self-preservation – Trump was vindictive when crossed; and Portman no doubt wanted to avoid a 2022 primary challenge from a Trump acolyte.  

The person most often mentioned as a possible primary opponent was Trump's mouthpiece in the House, Rep. Jim Jordan, who had a big role to play in running West Chester's John Boehner out of the House Speakership in 2015.

If Jordan plans to run now, he can expect a crowded field of GOP candidates in 2022.

For now, though, Portman is free of the Trump hammer hanging over his head.

After a violent mob of pro-Trump thugs stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 – an event which led directly to the current impeachment charge against the former president, Portman issued what, for him, was an unusually harsh criticism of Trump.

"Both in his words before the attack on the Capitol and in his actions afterwards, President Trump bears some responsibility for what happened on January 6,'' Portman said.

Better than nothing, from a very temperate politician who doesn't engage in heated remarks.

At his Monday press conference in Cincinnati announcing he would not run for re-election to a third term, Portman was asked how he would vote in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. All he would say is that "as a juror, I'm going to listen to both sides. That's my job."

But Tuesday, he voted with all but five of his Republican colleagues in the Senate to dismiss the impeachment case, saying he wasn't sure it is constitutional to try a president who is no longer in office.

Now that Portman is free from the burden of looking over his shoulder for a primary opponent in 2022, Senate Democrats will, no doubt, still try to convince Portman to vote to convict Trump in the Senate trial. They need 17 Republican votes to get to the two-thirds majority needed for conviction.

It appears it would take some heavy convincing on their part.

I have no doubt that Portman will be glad to see Donald Trump's presence in this rear view mirror. But he is probably not be willing to end his tenuous relationship with Trump with a massive exclamation point.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.