After Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s announcement that he now favors gay marriage, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus made it clear that the organization will continue to support him in the future. Portman’s stance will not affect the financial support he receives from the RNC, something which upsets a few social conservatives. But there is very little upside in making Portman uncomfortable.
The RNC certainly does not want to encourage a primary challenger in the next Senate election. They wouldn’t want someone who feels so passionately about an issue that seems to be less popular by the day to be on the ballot in a major swing state at the same time as a presidential election. In the 2012 cycle, Republicans will also be defending 24 seats in the Senate, compared to ten for the Democrats.
An additional problem with primary challenges is that the class of candidates willing to challenge an incumbent of their own party is usually much less impressive. These guys tend to be scarier to the middle than the typical nominee. The ones competent enough to win primaries include Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and Joe Miller in Alaska. The candidates preferred by parties tend to be more cautious.
Fortunately for the RNC, ambitious Republicans have incentives not to run in 2016. They could just wait until 2018 when there will likely be a gubernatorial election (with either John Kasich finishing a second term, or an incumbent Democrat running for reelection) and when Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senator, will be seeking a third term. There’s too much risk in challenging Portman, and it would result in an undesirable reputation in a state in which swing voters matter so much.
There is one guy who could cause problems: former Senator and current state attorney general Mike Dewine. He’s enough of a social conservative that he supported fellow 2006 loser Rick Santorum in the 2012 presidential primary. He could pose a strong primary challenge. And the only ones happier than social conservatives would be the Democrats.