On Monday, two – term GOP Senator Rob Portman (OH) announced he would not run for reelection. For the GOP, it is not welcome news as Portman was a) an incumbent and b) a proven campaigner who knew how to navigate the political currents of politics. But, it also is a sign that Portman recognizes he is not a good fit for the party anymore.
To understand this, one needs to look his background and past two runs for office. Portman served in the Bush White House where free markets and globalized trade was the norm. In 2010, when he ran for Senate, he benefitted from the nation’s recoil to the first two years of the Obama Presidency. Then, when he ran for reelection in 2016 – despite rejecting Trump he had the fortune to run against former Congressman and one – term Governor Ted Strickland (D). Portman ran as a moderate in the suburbs and just rode Trump’s coattails. Keep in mind this is when most people though Ohio was dark purple (swing state). But, after 2016, 2020, numerous state elections and the polling misses of 2020, it is hard to argue it is anything but bright pink. Doesn’t mean a Democrat cannot win (ie. Senator Sherrod Brown) but it is extremely difficult.
Portman probably could have won if he had ran again. Especially because if he was the GOP nominee he would be contrasting himself against a Democrat in a likely midterm environment where the best Democrats can hope for is a politically neutral one. But, he would be unlikely to truly fit into the modern GOP. A GOP which is becoming more populist, more down-scale, more isolationist in foreign policy and more restrictionist on trade.
Portman is not the first Senator to recognize his time has come and gone. Right after the 2020 elections concluded, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) also announced his retirement. Toomey, former President of the economically libertarian Club for Growth, has won two narrow elections in the state but he did so with margins in the increasing blue Philly suburbs. Post Trump, such a strategy probably does not exist anymore.
Senators who want to have a future in the party, and plausibly can because of their limited political tenures pre – Trump, have telegraphed what the party is becoming. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), perhaps made the most famous statement when he said, “We are a worker’s party now.” He has also penned a number of op – eds framing the GOP as a “Patriotic, Pro-Worker Republican Party.”
Senator Josh Hawley has gotten in on the theme by attacking large tech companies and focusing on unfavorable trade policies. Hawley, as the former AG of Missouri, actually has taken on large companies to the benefit of the little guy and gal giving him street – cred. Both Senators likely represent the future of a party which is more down – scale and rural.
But, at some point, the party will have to find a balance between its competing libertarian, economically focused wing and its more populist, socially conservative wing. At some point these wings will come into conflict with one another as reigning in large tech companies and reworing trade deals which create winners and losers and create new economic hurdles to success.
Perhaps, however, with more large companies getting in bed with the neo – liberal economic and progressive social policies of the Democratic Party these conflicts will become lessened due to the desire to simply stop the spread of progressive policies in America. The old GOP platform of Fusionism in the 70’s and 90’s was premised on stopping the spread of Democratic weakness on confronting Communism running the country. Perhaps the same will occur now.
Whether deliberately or through sheer chance, Trump remade the GOP. But he did so through force of personality vs. policies and having a slate of candidates he chose pushing his policies. It will be up to the GOP in the next four years to flesh out what their party is becoming and craft a narrative appealing to voters. From the retirements of Senator Portman and Toomey, we are already seeing what the GOP is becoming.