In the annals of odd electoral facts, Democrats have never won a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio when an incumbent didn’t run for reelection

The announcement that Ohio Republican Rob Portman would be retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2022 gives Democrats an opening to pick up a seat in the purplish state.

Moderate Democratic U.S. Representative Tim Ryan is preparing to jump into this high profile race and is looking to put an end to an electoral oddity in the Buckeye State: each time a U.S. Senator from Ohio has not sought another term in the direct election era, Republicans have won the seat.

Overall, Democrats have won 18 of the 40 general and special U.S. Senate elections in Ohio since 1914, but none of the eight contests in which an incumbent did not seek an additional term:

  • 1914 (Republican seat): Former state legislator and Lieutenant Governor Warren Harding defeated Attorney General Timothy Hogan by 9.6 points
  • 1920 (Republican seat): Governor Frank Willis beat businessman William Julian by 18.4 points
  • 1940 (Democratic seat): Cleveland Mayor Harold Burton defeated former U.S. Representative John McSweeney by 4.8 points
  • 1946 special (Democratic seat): Former state legislator Kingsley Taft beat Henry Webber by 12.5 points
  • 1970 (Democratic seat): U.S. Representative Robert Taft, Jr. narrowly edged former state legislator Howard Metzenbaum by 2.2 points
  • 1994 (Democratic seat): Lieutenant Governor Mike DeWine coasted to a 14.2-point win over entrepreneur Joel Hyatt
  • 1998 (Democratic seat): Governor George Voinovich defeated former state legislator and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Mary Boyle by 12.9 points
  • 2010 (Republican seat): Former Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman beat Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher by 17.4 points

In three additional cycles, incumbents ran for reelection but were defeated in the primary. Democrats also lost two of those races (1928’s special to former U.S. Senator and sitting U.S. Representative Theodore Burton and in 1968 to Attorney General William Saxbe) but did win one (behind John Glenn in 1974).

Ohio Democratic U.S. Senate nominees have surprisingly fared much better when squaring off against GOP incumbents winning six of 14 such races over the decades – knocking off Roscoe McCullough (1930, special), Simeon Fess (1934), George Bender (1956), John Bricker (1958), Robert Taft, Jr. (1976), and Mike DeWine (2006).

While Congressman Ryan may on paper be the strongest general election candidate for his party, he may yet need to navigate his way around progressive challengers on the path to the Democratic nomination next year.

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  1. Flickertail-Pembina on February 4, 2021 at 9:50 am

    “…purplish State” Not only did Buckeye vote for the losing candidate (for the sixth time since 1855, all of which for the Republican nominee), but also by about an eye-popping 8% – or about 12.4% more R relative to the national showing!

    “…when an incumbent didn’t run for reelection” (Hoa!) William Bart Saxbe in fact did not stand for a second 6-year term, and his seat was won by a Democrat, albeit one who did not win & hold any ‘down-down-ticket’ positions like state representative or US representative prior to his Senate tenure.

    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on February 4, 2021 at 9:58 am

      Having left his seat in 1973, Sen. Saxbe did not run for reelection – but the incumbent in the 1974 cycle, appointed U.S. Senator Howard Metzenbaum, did seek another term. He lost the primary to John Glenn as referenced above.

  2. Flickertail-Pembina on February 5, 2021 at 9:50 am

    Metzenbaum was the only appointed senator to successfully have won any direct US senate election, if I am correct (he actually was appointed twice, though the second one, in late 1976, was in name only, having already been elected to a full 6-year term commencing in 1977).

    As of 2020, MARY Boyle is the only female Senate aspirant who was nominated by either major party.

    Despite its R lean, the state’s two longest-serving senators since direct elections began have been Democrats, Glenn and “Metz”, each serving technically for 5 terms. Aside from the so-called open-seat curse afflicting the state Democrats (though methinks they retired it in 1974 with Glenn) Representative Ryan will have to “navigate” the naysayer tides in his state’s Senate elections: only in 1970 and 1934 has the party in presidential power successfully wrested a seat away from the opposing party in a midterm cycle.

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