Ohio Senate Election 2016

August 4, 2016
Senator John Sherman

Senator John Sherman was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Ohio in 1861 and served until 1877, and again from 1881 to 1897.

Credit: U.S. Senate Historical Office


All Eyes on Ohio: A long legacy of policy and politics in the U.S. Senate 

The Ohio Senate race will be one of the most closely watched races of the 2016 Senate election cycle; 1st term incumbent Republican Rob Portman is running for reelection against former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland who is a Democrat.  Not only is Ohio a key swing state in the presidential election but it has a very long history of producing prominent Republican politicians who have made their mark in the U.S. Senate and on the broader national stage. In this essay, Cory Manento and I compare one of Ohio’s current sitting Senators, Rob Portman, to John Sherman. Sherman was a long serving influential Republican Senator – also from Ohio – who served more than a century earlier when U.S. Senators were elected indirectly, in state legislatures, not directly chosen by the voters. It was not until 1913, with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, that voters got the opportunity to elect their U.S. Senators.

Rob Portman and John Sherman’s careers illustrate why and how Ohio remains such a pivotal state to both control of the U.S. Senate and winning the White House under both indirect and direct election of U.S. Senators. At the same time, Ohio illustrates how the adoption of direct elections puts far more pressure on individual Senate candidates to balance their national party loyalty with the specific conditions of their elections in their home state.  

Rob Portman - Budget Hawk and Establishment Republican?

Republican Senator Rob Portman may not be known for his charisma or hold a leadership position in the Senate, but he has attained national prominence by being a skilled politician with an impressive resume from the swing state of Ohio. His political experience and home state were enough for Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, to seriously consider choosing Portman as his running mate. However, he was not chosen, and some observers speculated at the time that it was because Romney wanted to avoid choosing a vice presidential candidate whose conservative credentials could be questioned.[1] An undisputed fiscal conservative, Portman is clearly wagering that the national Republican Party must become more moderate on social issues in order to be successful in the long term. In 2016, Portman is in a tough reelection battle against Democrat Ted Strickland, former Governor of Ohio. With Donald Trump at the head of the GOP presidential ticket, the Ohio Senate race may depend on whether Ohio voters share Portman’s or Donald Trump’s vision. In turn, party control of the Senate may depend on what the voters of Ohio decide.

Just five years after obtaining his law degree from the University of Michigan, Portman became an associate counsel to President George H.W. Bush.[2] He was quickly promoted to deputy assistant and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs in the White House, where he stayed until 1991. Portman ran for an open seat in Ohio’s 2nd U.S. House District in 1993, defeating several primary challengers and easily winning the special election. He was reelected six times, typically with more than 70 percent of the vote.[3]

During his time in the House, Portman was directly involved in some of the major legislative achievements of the 1990s. He served on the House Budget Committee which crafted the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation welfare reform bill in 1996, and he was a forceful advocate of the balanced budget that passed in 1997.[4] He also championed the cause of drug abuse prevention. A relatively moderate Republican, Portman ranked in the 48th percentile for conservatism among House members in the 109th Congress.[5]

In 2005, Portman left the House to serve as United States Trade Representative in the Bush Administration, and then became director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2006. While directing the OMB he called for (and successfully put forth) a balanced budget, but was reportedly “frustrated” by the amount of resistance he encountered within the administration.[6] The son of an entrepreneur who was displeased with government regulations, Portman’s fiscal conservatism is unsurprising. In a 2010 interview with a reporter from the Weekly Standard, Portman recalled his childhood: “We sat around the kitchen table and heard talk about regulations, and taxes, and government getting in the way of small business.”[7] He left the Bush Administration in 2007.

In 2010, Portman ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, defeating Democratic Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher by 18 points, which is no small feat in Ohio. His campaign “focused on common sense conservative ideas to help create jobs and get the deficit under control,” according to his website.[8] During his first term, Portman has continued to focus on fiscal issues like the national debt. He has served on the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Committee on the Budget. And in 2011, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell selected Portman to serve as one of twelve members on the bipartisan Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (dubbed a “supercommittee”). The supercommittee failed, but through it Portman crafted relationships with Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD) and then-Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and cemented his status as a conservative who is willing to compromise.[9]

Nevertheless, Portman has not been entirely immune to partisan pressures and Congressional gridlock since arriving in the Senate. Though Portman has positioned himself as a moderate within the Republican Party – he ranks in the 38th percentile for conservatism among Senate Republicans when analyzing his roll call votes – he still has voted with the Republican Party approximately 94 percent of the time in his first Senate term.[10] Moreover, Portman tends to sponsor or cosponsor bills that would lower taxes, relax regulations on businesses, and reduce federal spending.[11] Among his successful sponsorships are an energy efficiency improvement bill, a bill making minor adjustments to the Medicare program, and a few bills renaming federal buildings in Ohio.[12]  But with divided control of Congress for much of his first term and a Democratic president, the vast majority of Portman’s sponsored bills have failed to become law. As a result, he has not yet achieved the same legislative success in the Senate that he did in the House.

The 2016 election promises to be a challenging one for Senator Portman. So far his campaign has raised over $18 million; his top two donors are Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.[13] Because of the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Portman has been walking a political tightrope. He officially endorsed Trump in May, but he often refrains from even mentioning the Republican presidential nominee on the campaign trail. In July, Portman attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland – sort of.  Rather than spending the week inside the Quicken Loans Arena where the actual convention was being held, Portman spent the week attending events in and around Cleveland to highlight his own campaign.[14] Portman did not want to be among the many prominent Republican officials who did not attend the convention – notably including former Republican presidential candidate and current Ohio Governor John Kasich – but he evidently wanted to create the perception of distance between himself and Trump.

Portman’s Democratic opponent, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, is not making Portman’s first reelection bid any easier. As a former minister, prison psychologist, congressman, and governor, Strickland is a strong candidate. He has raised about $7 million to this point.[15] Interestingly, Strickland’s campaign strategy also has him straddling the fence when it comes to Trump. On one hand, Strickland has repeatedly tried to associate Portman with Trump, publicly criticizing Portman for endorsing the Republican nominee. On the other hand, Strickland’s own campaign website repeats themes from Trump’s campaign almost verbatim, lamenting “unfair trade deals that cost Ohio over 300,000 jobs,” and criticizing then-Representative Portman for voting for “job killing trade deals like NAFTA.”[16] Both candidates undoubtedly understand the possibility that parts of Trump’s message could resonate with Ohio’s large working class population.

John Sherman – Big Business Trust Buster

            John Sherman was both a strategic politician and a beneficiary of favorable political conditions for Republicans.  He decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1854 when he became outraged at the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether they wanted to allow slavery.[17] He first sought election to the U.S. Senate in an 1861 special election that occurred after President Lincoln appointed sitting Ohio Senator Salmon Chase as his Treasury Secretary.

Sherman’s first Senate reelection campaign came in 1866, just one year after the conclusion of the Civil War. He had gained national prominence in the first place by being opposed to the expansion of slavery in the U.S.; he was also a vocal abolitionist during the Civil War, and voted for the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.[18] The elections immediately following the Union’s victory set off decades of Republican dominance in the Senate and in national politics more broadly, as Republicans won 57 of 68 U.S. Senate seats in 1866.[19] Even against prominent Democrat Allen G. Thurman, John Sherman had no trouble winning reelection through the Republican-dominated state legislature that year.

            There is no denying that Senator Sherman was a prominent figure in national politics. Sherman is perhaps best known for being the author and namesake of the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). The act states, “Every contract, combination in the form of trust or other-wise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.”[20] In his efforts to rein in big corporate interests by making it harder for them to have monopolies and collude on pricing practices, Sherman was in some ways pushing his own party to break free from their close alliance with big business.  In fact during the next decade, the Republican Party would face significant challenges from within and lose voters to third parties that promoted a more progressive agenda. 

             Much like Senator Portman, who was first elected almost 150 years after Sherman joined the Senate, he was more well-known for his policy work than his charisma. At the 1880 Republican Convention, future-president James Garfield said of Sherman, “You ask for his monuments, I point you to twenty-five years of national statutes, ”[21] which was not exactly an exciting endorsement.  Both Portman and Sherman were intent on ensuring that the United States was fiscally solvent. For Portman, that means achieving a balanced budget and eliminating national debt. For Sherman, it meant recovering from the economic shocks of the Civil War by ensuring a gold-backed currency. Like Portman, Sherman worked for the executive branch, serving as Rutherford B. Hayes’s Treasury Secretary and serving as Secretary of State in President McKinley’s first term. Both men were also considered possible presidential contenders, and Sherman actually ran for the GOP nomination in 1880, 1884, and again in 1888.

            The special election of 1881 which brought John Sherman back to the U.S. Senate brings to mind the significance surrounding Portman’s 2016 reelection bid. After Garfield was elected president in 1880, Ohio held a special election to fill his vacant Senate seat in March of 1881. Sherman easily won the election on the first ballot, receiving 20 of 32 votes in the Ohio Senate and 65 of 105 votes in the House.[22]  See the roll call votes here  https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/collections/id_642/?q=roll+call+votes&selected_facets=mods_hierarchical_geographic_state_ssim%3AOhio After the special election, the balance of power in the Senate was exactly even, with 37 Republicans, 37 Democrats, and two third-party members (with one caucusing with each major party).[23] Chester Arthur, a Republican, was Vice President, thus granting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to the Republicans. Similarly, in 2016, the reelection of Senator Portman will be crucial to the Republicans’ quest to save their majority.

Exciting or not, Sherman played both a crucial policy and political role in the history of the Senate. While Senator Portman is far from a sure thing to win his first reelection bid, Sherman was well-positioned within the Republican Party at a consequential moment in U.S. history, which allowed him to win the support of the Ohio state legislature in successful bids for reelection.

John Sherman and Rob Portman, though separated by more than a century, have several common elements to their Senate careers.  Both men were considered policy specialists on the budget and fiscal policy, both men managed to build support within the Republican Party in their home state and nationally, and both men were repeatedly considered as possible presidential candidates.  They each crafted careers that relied heavily on their affiliation with the Republican Party and represented their states with a view towards how national policies would affect their constituents. 

However, for most of his career Sherman had the benefit of a stronger Republican Party organization both in the Ohio state legislature that elected him, and nationally. These favorable political circumstances that helped propel Sherman to the Senate and keep him there through repeated elections. Rob Portman faces a different political world, with a more competitive partisan distribution in Ohio, and a presidential nominee – Donald Trump – who is highly controversial. In 2016, with direct election of U.S. Senators, Rob Portman’s electoral prospects for reelection depend more on his individual ability as a politician and on Ohio voters’ perceptions of his relationship to Donald Trump than on a cohesive and strong Republican Party brand. In that way, the Ohio Senate race of 2016 illustrates the important ways that direct election of U.S. Senators changes the fundamental dynamics of Senate careers.


[1] Larry J. Sabato, “Republicans Need a Champion in 2016,” Politico Magazine March 3, 2014. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/03/republicans-need-a-champion-in-2016-104177_Page2.html#.V30M_pMrK1v.

[2] Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, “Portman, Robert Jones (Rob).” Accessed July 6, 2016 at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=P000449.

[3] David Wolfford, “More Bad News for Democrats,” The Weekly Standard March 15, 2010. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/422556.

[4] “Biography,” Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/biography.

[5] Harry Enten, “Conservatives in the House, then Moderates in the Senate,” FiveThirtyEight January 9, 2015. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/conservatives-in-the-house-then-moderates-in-the-senate/.

[6] Alexander Bolton, “Possible VP Pick Rob Portman was ‘Frustrated’ at Bush Budget Office,” The Hill, August 2, 2012. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/241767-portman-frustrated-at-bush-budget-office.

[7] Wolfford, “More Bad News for Democrats.”

[8] “Biography,” Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/biography.

[9] Dan Sewell, “Spotlight is on Ohio’s Low-Profile Portman,” The Associated Press June 21, 2012. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/spotlight-ohios-low-profile-portman.

[10] Harry Enten, “Conservatives in the House, then Moderates in the Senate.” Party voting data from Ballotpedia, “Senator Rob Portman,” Accessed on July 6, 2016 at https://ballotpedia.org/Rob_Portman#Analysis.

[11] Rob Portman – Sponsored Legislation. Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/sponsored-legislation.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Opensecrets, “Summary Data – Ohio Senate Race.” Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary.php?cycle=2016&id=OHS2.

[14] James Arkin, “Rob Portman’s Side Convention,” RealClearPolitics, July 19, 2016. Accessed on July 26, 2016 at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/07/19/rob_portmans_side_convention_131231.html

[15] Opensecrets, “Summary Data – Ohio Senate Race.” Accessed on July 6, 2016 at http://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary.php?cycle=2016&id=OHS2.

[16] Ted Strickland for Senate, “Ohio Needs to Know.” Accessed on July 26, 2016 at http://www.tedstrickland.com/ohio-needs-to-know.

[17] Burton, Theodore E. 1906. John Sherman. Cambridge: The University Press of Cambridge, 20.

[18] Ibid, 158-164.

[19] United States Senate, “Party Division in the Senate, 1789-Present.” Accessed on July 7, 2016 at http://www.senate.gov/history/partydiv.htm.

[20] “Transcript of Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890).” Accessed on July 7, 2016 at https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=51&page=transcript.

[21] Kerr, Winfield. 1908. John Sherman: His Life and Public Services. Boston: Sherman, French, and Company, 66-67.

[22] Wendy Schiller, “Ohio Special Election for 1881 Seat,” Brown University Digital Archives. Accessed on July 7, 2016 at https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:403071/.

[23] United States Senate, “Party Division in the Senate, 1789-Present.” Accessed on July 7, 2016 at http://www.senate.gov/history/partydiv.htm.