Ohio power brokers try to recruit business leaders to run for Rob Portman's Senate seat in 2022

Key Points
  • Republican Sen. Rob Portman said this week that he will not seek reelection in 2022.
  • Power brokers in Ohio are approaching business leaders to run for Portman's seat and fend off pro-Trump candidates.
  • Those who have been approached include the CEO of a central Ohio business advocacy group, a venture capitalist and a digital marketing executive.
Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, speaks to members of the media while walking through the Senate Subway at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
Sarah Silbiger | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A group of power brokers in Ohio have been reaching out to business leaders across the state to try to recruit them to run for Republican Rob Portman's Senate seat in 2022, in an effort to stop pro-Trump contenders from winning that contest, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some of those who have started engaging with potential candidates include donors and business types close to former Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, these people said.

Kasich is one of the most prominent GOP critics of former President Donald Trump. He was one of a handful of Republicans who was featured at the Democratic National Convention over the summer to endorse Joe Biden.

The possibility of trying to win a Republican primary in what appears to be a divided party is leading some executives to opt against getting in. Those who have been approached on the Republican and Democratic sides include the CEO of a central Ohio business advocacy group, a venture capitalist and a digital marketing executive.

Several people are hesitant to get into the race because a Republican primary will involve a battle for the party's base and likely an endorsement by Trump himself. If he endorses, Trump will likely support someone more aligned with his agenda as opposed to a more traditional Republican. Trump won Ohio in the 2020 presidential election.

House Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, will not be running for Portman's seat, his office recently announced. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement Thursday that after meeting with Trump, the former president is "committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022."

GOP politicians with allegiances to Trump who are reportedly in the mix to possibly run include Rep. Steve Stivers and Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken.

Political strategists say they're not surprised by the effort to find a business-minded candidate. It's the latest signal the Republican primary for Portman's seat is going to be expansive.

"Will likely be a huge field in the GOP primary, with choices of all ideological stripes," Charlie Black, a former Kasich strategist, told CNBC. It's "to be expected," Black said about business leaders being recruited, "but there will be conservative candidates not wedded to Trump."

Portman announced Monday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2022 because it has "gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy." Portman was a Republican lawmaker who voted to uphold the results of the Electoral College confirming Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Portman on the push for stimulus and the impeachment trial of fmr. President Trump
Sen. Portman on the push for stimulus and the impeachment trial of fmr. President Trump

Those executives with Republican ties who have already experienced attempts to corral them into the race include Alex Fischer, president and CEO of The Columbus Partnership, and Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist who has been in Ohio for more than a decade, the people familiar said.

Another executive who has been floated as a contender on the Democratic side is Nancy Kramer, a founder of the Ohio-based digital marketing agency Resource/Ammirati, one of these people said. Kramer's firm was acquired by IBM in 2016.

Fischer's Columbus Partnership is a business advocacy group for the city of Columbus and central Ohio. Fischer was also publicly credited with helping keep the MLS soccer team, the Columbus Crew, in the city when they were considering moving to Texas.

Kvamme and Fischer told CNBC they are not interested in running for the Senate, even though they have been approached. Kramer, who currently is at IBM iX in Columbus, did not return a request for comment.

"Yes, some folks have called me. I am flattered," Kvamme told CNBC. "Maybe someday I will get into the political arena, but my time is better spent demonstrating to my friends in California that Ohio and the Midwest is the next great place to create and build tech companies."

Fischer, who was once the deputy governor of Tennessee before he moved to Ohio, said he's not interested in running despite discussion in political circles.

"No, I am not privately considering it or otherwise positioning. Obviously there is a lot of discussion in political circles," Fischer told CNBC. "In my conversations, there is an increased frustration with the overall political environment, the inability to solve problems and to collaborate across political parties to work together. There is also a desire to see business leaders to get more actively involved," he added.

On the Democratic side, Axios reported that Amy Acton, former director of the Ohio Department of Health, could also be in the mix. Former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman has said he is considering running. Rep. Tim Ryan, a former presidential candidate, has said he is "seriously looking" at running.