In a surprise, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers announced Monday that he would resign from the conservative 15th Congressional District, effective May 16, in order to lead the state Chamber of Commerce.
The Republican’s decision to leave elected office was especially unexpected because he’d raised a hefty $1.4 million for a possible U.S. Senate bid during the first three months of 2021 and had reiterated his interest in the upper chamber just last week. Stivers, though, confirmed to Politico Monday that he would not be campaigning to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman.
Stivers’ move will set off a special election in a very gerrymandered seat that includes the southern Columbus area as well as Athens, and the winner of the GOP primary will be favored to keep it. Donald Trump took this constituency 56-42 last year, which was similar to his 55-40 showing in 2016. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown did carry the 15th District 50-48 in 2018, but that victory came as he was winning statewide by a solid 52-46 margin.
Stivers’ departure from the House ends an eventful career that included a stint leading the NRCC as his party was losing control of the chamber in 2018. Stivers got his start working as a lobbyist in state politics for Bank One, which has since been acquired by JPMorgan Chase, and he was later appointed to a state Senate seat in 2003. Stivers also served in Iraq with the Army National Guard during his time in the legislature, and he won his first term in 2004 while stationed overseas.
Stivers got his chance to run for Congress in 2008 when Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce retired from a suburban Columbus seat that had very narrowly supported George W. Bush four years before. Stivers, who was in line to lead the state senate, initially turned down Republican attempts to recruit him, but he changed his mind after Team Red failed to land another viable contender.
While Stivers had no trouble securing the GOP nomination, he faced a very tough contest against Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner who had held Pryce to a very close victory in 2006. Stivers, though, ran a strong campaign where he emphasized his military service and portrayed himself as a moderate.
Barack Obama ended up carrying the seat 54-45, but Kilroy ultimately edged out Stivers just 46-45 in a race that took over a month to resolve. (The two awkwardly both attended freshman orientation in Washington, D.C. in November.) Stivers may have won that year if not for the presence of a Libertarian and an anti-abortion independent, who collectively took close to 9% of the vote.
House Minority Leader John Boehner soon began recruiting Stivers to run again, and this time, he promptly said yes. 2010 was a horrible year for Democrats almost everywhere, and Stivers won his rematch with Kilroy in a 54-41 landslide.
Republicans had full control over the redistricting process the following year, and they used their power to draw Stivers a seat that had backed John McCain 52-46; mapmakers even created a “peninsula” that extended into downtown Columbus, likely so that the congressman could represent several influential banks in the city. For a time it looked possible that Stivers could face a primary against fellow Rep. Steve Austria, but Austria decided to retire instead.
Stivers never had any trouble winning reelection in his new seat, and the GOP chose him to chair the NRCC for the 2018 cycle. Republicans were on the defensive nationwide that year thanks to Trump’s unpopularity, though, and Stivers faced a difficult task as he tried to keep numerous vulnerable House seats red.
Stivers’ committee responded to the challenge by running numerous bigoted commercials, including racist messaging in New York against the ultimately victorious Democrat, Antonio Delgado. Stivers also defended anti-Semitic ads his committee was airing in Minnesota the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
Stivers’ biggest sin as head of the NRCC in GOP eyes, though, may have been his decision to keep sending millions to defend Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock despite polls showing her in very bad shape. Stivers insisted that September, “I know there have been reports about her potentially getting cut off. The last poll I looked at she’s winning. I’m not going to cut off somebody who is winning.” True to his word, the NRCC did not cut off Comstock, and they ultimately deployed more money in Virginia’s 10th District than in any other seat in the nation.
Comstock, though, ended up falling by a punishing 56-44 margin as the GOP was losing control of 40 other House seats, and with them control of the chamber. Stivers did not run for another term leading the NRCC and his replacement, Tom Emmer, quickly acknowledged he had been “inundated with complaints about the $5 million spent on TV ads to help Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.” Stivers himself stuck around the House for another term, but he decided to call it a career on Monday.