Where are the Democrats in Ohio's Senate race? Waiting, for now

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Liz Skalka, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·5 min read
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Apr. 9—The most talked about development in Ohio's 2022 Senate contest this week isn't who jumped into the race, but who bowed out.

Dr. Amy Acton, the buzzy former state health director from the coronavirus pandemic's early months, put an end Tuesday to speculation trailing her since she left her nonprofit job to seriously consider running for Republican Rob Portman's seat.

As her supporters described it, Dr. Acton was supposed to invigorate Ohio's lackluster Democratic brand as an unconventional political novice — a medical doctor positively linked to a challenging time for Ohioans. But she said this week that after giving it her "most thoughtful and deliberate consideration" she would pass on the opportunity for now.

Her move puts a brighter spotlight on the other Democrats still weighing bids, and more pressure to enter the race early as candidates stack up on the Republican side.

Luxury car dealer and tech entrepreneur Bernie Moreno is the latest Republican to enter the ring on a pro-Trump, anti-socialism platform. He joins former Ohio Republican Party chairman Jane Timken and former state Treasurer Josh Mandel in the primary.

What the declared GOP candidates have in common so far is a degree of money and freedom. Only Ms. Timken stepped down from an elected role to run, and both Ms. Timken and Mr. Moreno can draw on personal wealth to make their campaigns possible. Each has little to lose politically from running hard at the GOP nomination, and it shows in their swerve to the right to pick up the conservative base.

"I don't have much to say about any of the three of them except they all look like kids on a playground that are sticking their tongue out and saying Donald Trump loves me more than he loves you," Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, told reporters this week.


After Dr. Acton's announcement, Mr. Mandel called her a "dictator" and said she "failed miserably" as health director.

Al Landis, a Tuscarawas County Commissioner who has endorsed Ms. Timken and praised her for steady leadership at the state party, said of the Republican primary: "It'll end being a lot of good dialogue. Will it always be pretty? Probably not. But I think how you handle these campaigns is going to demonstrate how you're going to lead the state as a senator."

While Mr. Brown doesn't reveal much about the conversations he's had with prospective candidates, he tossed out the names of three Democrats who, at the moment, seem most likely to enter the race: Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, and Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes.

Mr. Ryan, who hails from outside Youngstown, has been teasing a run for statewide office for years, but with Democrats needing a viable candidate and new congressional district maps looming, 2021 may be the year it finally happens.

"If [the race] continues to go down the road it's going now, I think [Republicans] are going to make it pretty clear they have no concern for what the average Ohio family is going through, and they're more concerned with having these culture wars and fights with each other," Mr. Ryan said in an interview last week.

He said he'll make a decision "one way or the other" during the next few weeks.

Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who's close to Mr. Ryan, said, "I do believe he's going to run."

"Tim is as comfortable in a labor hall or a VFW hall as he is in a neighborhood in Ottawa Hills. He fits the state in the same manner as [U.S. Sens.3/8 Sherrod Brown and Howard Metzenbaum," Mr. Redfern said, explaining that Mr. Ryan fits the mold of Ohio Democrats who have won statewide — which some criticize as exclusively white and male.

Since Mr. Ryan is already in federal office and would need to amass far more campaign cash to run for the upper chamber than he has previously, his calculus for entering isn't the same as the Republican field to date.

The same can be said for Mr. Boyce and Ms. Sykes, the top Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives. Either would be the first Black man or woman to secure a major-party nomination for Senate in Ohio.

With Ohio looking less attainable for Democrats after the 2018 and 2020 cycles, outside money and political action committees are less likely to direct resources here. And that might explain why it's taking longer for Democrats — and even possible GOP candidates like U.S. Reps. Mike Turner and Steve Stivers — to commit.

Jim Ruvolo, a Democratic political consultant from Toledo, said waiting isn't necessarily bad for Democrats, since the primary is still more than a year away.

"While it would be nice to have a clear front-runner that's raising money, I don't think it hurts us because [Republicans] are going to be set back by their own internal fighting," he said. "So while I'd like to have a couple of candidates on our side be out there and be active, I'm not discouraged."

Mr. Ruvolo called Ms. Acton an "intriguing candidate because of the fact that she got so well known for something that was on everybody's mind. That's unusual. Now having said that, it's tough to be a first-time candidate in a state like Ohio."

He said Democrats scored a competitive Senate race as a bonus, since Mr. Portman was expected to run again and easily win. They should instead focus on the governor's race, he said, because Gov. Mike DeWine is thought to be struggling with the Republican base.

"DeWine's had a tough couple of years," he said. "Truthfully, I think it's more important for the Democratic Party to win the governor's race than the Senate race."