CLEVELAND — When Sen. Rob Portman announced his retirement this week, nearly every ambitious politician in Ohio, from mayors to other sitting members of Congress, began picturing themselves filling the state’s first open Senate seat in more than a decade.
The most intense speculation first landed on Rep. Jim Jordan, whose Fox News fame and loyalty to former president Donald Trump could have crowded out other Republicans in a primary. Jordan announced Thursday that he will not run.
The conversation, though, already was shifting sharply toward a doctor with zero experience in elected office who served as the Republican governor’s appointed health director and would run as a Democrat. Amy Acton, who quickly gained statewide acclaim and bipartisan admiration while overseeing the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, had been considering a run for the job even before Portman’s surprise announcement.
Efforts to recruit Acton into the race were first reported Monday by BuzzFeed News, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporting the next day that she was seriously entertaining the idea. Sources who have since been kept apprised of Acton’s deliberations told BuzzFeed News they expect her to signal her intentions by the end of the week. Another source familiar with her thinking believes she will “formalize her interest in some fashion” — likely a campaign committee that would allow her to raise and spend money for exploratory purposes — sometime in the next week.
Acton, 54, did not respond to requests for comment.
Several well-established Democrats are in the mix for the Portman seat, including Rep. Tim Ryan and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, both of whom also are considering bids for governor in 2022. Michael Coleman, the former mayor of Columbus, announced Wednesday night that he is thinking about a run. So is Danny O’Connor, the elected recorder of property deeds in Franklin County. With Jordan out, at least a dozen other prominent Republicans are eyeing the race, including state party chair Jane Timken, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and former state treasurer Josh Mandel.
An Acton candidacy could quickly change the state of play. She’s received encouragement from several Democratic grandees, including those with close ties to Sen. Sherrod Brown and former governor Dick Celeste, the last two living Democrats with any sustained success in Ohio.
“Imagine Dr. Amy Acton as Ohio’s next U.S. senator. I sure can,” the Cleveland-based progressive journalist Connie Schultz, who is married to Brown, tweeted Tuesday night.
A source close to Brown maintained that the senator isn’t taking a side this early. “He's open to conversations with potential candidates, but believes the party and eventual nominee are stronger when every candidate can lay out their case to the voters and let Ohioans decide for themselves,” the source said.
Acton earned positive reviews for her aggressive approach and calming public persona as Ohio’s health director last year, when her daily afternoon briefings with Gov. Mike DeWine became appointment viewing during the early days of the pandemic. Homage, the Ohio-based apparel company, released a special-edition shirt in her honor. The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum produced a figurine in her likeness, complete with a white coat. An April 2020 poll by Baldwin Wallace University measured her favorability at 64% and found that 55% of respondents trusted “a great deal” the information she shared at daily briefings.
But as the pandemic became more politicized, with everything from masks to stay-at-home orders under partisan attacks amplified by Trump, DeWine and Acton found their directives under increasing scrutiny. Acton, who is Jewish and had volunteered for Barack Obama in 2008 and had a Democratic voting record, also became a target for her religion and politics. Statehouse demonstrators carried signs scrawled with anti-Semitic messages. Protesters picketed her home in Columbus several times. One Republican lawmaker known for such provocations referred to Acton on Facebook as a “globalist” — an anti-Semitic dog-whistle.
Acton resigned as health director last June but stayed on as an adviser to DeWine until August. She later joined the Columbus Foundation, a philanthropic organization, and has since avoided the spotlight, other than a New Yorker profile in November. Acton, the magazine reported, had worried “that she might be forced to sign health orders that violated her Hippocratic oath to do no harm.”
“She has a built-in fan base not only in Ohio, but across the country,” Jeff Rusnak, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist, told BuzzFeed News. “Just based on speculation that she might be a candidate, it’s amazed me how many people I heard from in my network of folks across the country who are excited that she might run.”
Other Ohio Democrats who are excited about Acton also cite her instant star power. The party has had so little in recent decades that Jerry Springer, the former Cincinnati mayor who went on to become a trash TV personality, has at various times been mentioned as a possible Senate or gubernatorial candidate.