With little more than a month to go before the Ohio primary elections, seven Republican candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in the state took the debate stage Monday at Central State University.
Ostensibly, their focus was on winning voters’ hearts and minds before the fast-approaching May primary. But their focus never strayed far from another election—the 2020 presidential election. And at times, it seemed as though they were tailoring their remarks more toward a particular viewer in Mar-a-Lago.
The reason is simple: A late-in-the-game endorsement from former President Donald Trump may be enough to tip the scales in a race that no particular candidate has consistently dominated. Trump’s endorsements have not always been slam dunks, but experts say that with the current tight race, a boost from the former president may be enough to tip one of the candidates over the edge with primary voters.
Leading the polls right now in the state are investment banker and businessman Mike Gibbons and former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. Gibbons has a slight edge, in part perhaps because of a recent advertising blitz. Trailing them are former Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken, venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance, and state Sen. Matt Dolan. The other two candidates on stage, businessman Neil Patel and IT firm founder Mark Pukita, have barely made a dent in the polls.
An early March Fox News survey found that Gibbons had 22 percent of voters’ support, with Mandel at 20 percent. Vance clocked in at 11 percent, with Timken at 9 percent and Dolan at 7 percent. But a quarter of voters remained undecided, and two-thirds of those supporting Gibbons, Mandel, and Vance said they could change their minds.
“So many candidates are going after the exact same group of voters with a very similar message,” David Niven, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, told The Dispatch. “There’s been a lot of candidates more or less spinning their wheels for several months, trying to distinguish themselves while doing much the same thing as everybody else.”
Onstage Monday, the candidates touted a number of routine conservative positions on everything from stopping illegal immigration (a couple said they should finish Trump’s border wall) to foreign policy (all were united against sending U.S. troops to Ukraine) in response to questions from moderator Karen Kasler of the Statehouse News Bureau.
On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the candidates were against escalating America’s military involvement through a no-fly zone or by putting American boots on the ground but were supportive of continuing to punish Russia economically with sanctions. Vance pushed the most isolationist stance, arguing that Americans should focus more on domestic issues, though he also took a crack at President Joe Biden for his son Hunter’s ties to Ukraine during the Obama administration. “At the end of the day, it’s not our job and it is not our business,” he said.
But they opened the debate rehashing the 2020 election: Kasler said they had received more submitted questions from the public about that topic than any other and asked if the candidates could “cite specific verifiable facts” if their position was that the election had been undermined by fraud. Nearly all launched into diatribes full of election conspiracy theories and misinformation. Their bullishness varied: Timken said she had no doubt there were “irregularities” in the election but said that her leadership had kept the results in Ohio secure.
Others were more outright in claiming Democrats had stolen the election. Mandel was perhaps the most emphatic: “I want to say it very clearly for all the RINOs out there and all the media elites out there. The 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump. It was stolen in a variety of different ways.”
Kasler drew boos from the crowd for fact-checking the candidates who expressed skepticism about President Biden’s win. Mandel and Vance also charged the moderator with being an example of liberal media bias.
Only Dolan, the state senator who has carved out a lane of his own running as a moderate Republican, directly refuted the stolen election narrative: “Joe Biden is president of the United States.” He also took a shot at Republicans who have defended lawmakers who voted to decertify state’s elections results on January 6, 2021.
His opponents hit back. “I don’t think trying to find a legal way to overturn the election is in any way treasonous,” Gibbons retorted. He called the idea that Trump tried to commit any fraud in his efforts to remain in office “ridiculous.”
At the end of the debate, Mandel pointed out that he was never asked about abortion or the Second Amendment, and his touting of conservative positions on both won him some applause from the audience. Vance also closed by talking about censorship by Big Tech, specifically on transgender issues, winning more applause. Earlier in the debate, Gibbons also won applause for saying he agreed with GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s estimation that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be fired.
Timken boasted that she is the “only candidate President Trump has endorsed,” though the endorsement was for her previous position as chair of the Ohio Republican Party.
Trump’s uncharacteristic refusal to endorse in this contest may be due to his advisers’ recommendation of restraint, or his personal ambivalence for or dislike for the candidates, CNN and the Daily Beast have reported.
The failure of his endorsements elsewhere to make headway may be influencing his calculus in Ohio also. Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue, despite his blessing from Trump, trails incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in polling and fundraising. In Pennsylvania, Sean Parnell suspended his Senate campaign due to abuse allegations from his ex-wife in a custody battle.
Another Trump-crowned candidate, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, also found himself slipping in the polls in Alabama. On March 23, Trump unceremoniously rescinded his endorsement of Brooks, who is vying for a Senate seat. The ostensible reason? Brooks committed the unforgivable sin of saying that the GOP needed to focus on winning the 2022 and 2024 elections. The suggestion that Republicans should simply put the 2020 election to bed earned Brooks a scathing statement from Trump, who said Brooks made a “horrible mistake” and accused him of being “woke.”
A lack of Trump support is enough to sound the death knell for some campaigns. Another Ohio Senate primary candidate, GOP business Bernie Moreno, abruptly ended his campaign in February after a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago where the former president told him there were “too many Trump candidates.”
“He wants to endorse the winner. He’s had a tactic of endorsing the loser and that’s really embarrassing,” David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, told The Dispatch. “He’s looking at the polls like everyone else. I think he’s going to wait until closer to the primary so he can endorse who will win the race and be a loyalist to him.”
Cohen doubts controversies that have derailed other candidates (such as Sean Parnell) explains the hesitation. “I don’t think Donald Trump has ever shied away from endorsing someone who is controversial. I don’t think that’s part of his calculation at all. He seems to like candidates that are more controversial.”
In Ohio, Trump’s silence has allowed candidates in turn to claim that they are the true heir apparent to MAGA-land.
Mandel’s website proclaims he is “Pro-God. Pro-Gun. Pro-Trump.” Timken’s website bashes former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, for being “anti-Trump” and says her work “delivered a second victory for President Trump in our state.”
Gibbons’ ads compare his background with the former president’s: “Trump and Gibbons are businessmen with a backbone.”
And Vance, whose previous anti-Trump comments in 2016 have generated criticism from his opponents, has visited Mar-a-Lago to genuflect before Trump, whom he now calls the “greatest president in my lifetime.”
The candidates have also done a fair amount of finger-pointing to paint their opponents as establishment Republicans in MAGA-clothing. But Monday’s debate featured less bickering among themselves and more focus on hitting Democrats and targets whom Mandel termed “squishy establishment Republicans” and “the fake news media.”
“It’s sort of a beauty pageant between the candidates that are all running the same basic message,” Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the Ohio-based Buckeye Institute, told The Dispatch.
That is, all but one candidate. So far, Dolan seems as though he couldn’t care less about what the erstwhile president thinks about him. At a previous debate in Cleveland, the moderator asked if the Republican Party would be better off if Trump had dropped his crusade about the 2020 election.
Dolan was the sole candidate to say yes. “In Ohio, we have very secure elections,” he said.
But there is reason to think a Trump endorsement could be decisive in the race. An Emerson College February poll found that 62 percent of Republican primary voters said they were more likely to support a candidate who wins Trump’s endorsement.
And the lack of a Trump endorsement thus far hasn’t stopped candidates from enlisting help from Trump’s court: Various prominent MAGA-world figures have split their support across the field.
The candidates have also courted Trump campaign operatives. Timken hired longtime Trump allies Kellyanne Conway, David Bossie, and Corey Lewandowski. She’s earned endorsements from a number of local Republicans and Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House of Representatives Republican Conference.
Gibbons has also hired a number of Trump campaign alums, including 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien. Sen. Rand Paul endorsed him, something he features prominently on his website.
Vance brought on Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio. Far-right GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, and GOP Sen. Jim Banks from Indiana have also endorsed Vance. He’s become something of a favorite on the Tucker Carlson circuit and has also received donations from billionaire conservative donor Peter Thiel.
Mandel has highlighted an endorsement from former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He’s also benefited from an endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth PAC.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination is favored to win the November general election overall. A March poll report from Akron University found a majority of Ohioans favor Republicans across the board in the state for the 2022 midterm elections. (Trump captured Ohio by eight percentage points in 2016 and 2020, and the Sen. Rob Portman, who is vacating the seat, won his reelection in 2016 by 19 points.) The Democratic primary is widely seen as something of a snooze-fest. U.S. Rep Tim Ryan from Youngston is head and shoulders ahead of the other Democrats—attorney Morgan Harper and tech executive Traci Johnson. While Ryan failed to make headway in his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2020, he has broader name recognition and has won re-election to the U.S. House since 2002.
Currently, the parties’ Senate primaries are set for May 3 with early voting beginning Monday. But the GOP’s redistricting maps are in dispute and tangled up in court. That raises the possibility that the primary could be kicked into the summer.
Until more is known though, candidates will keep gunning to place first in the primary that seems to matter most—the Trump primary. “They’re all tripping over one another, except Dolan, to try and get the Trump endorsement,” Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at the Ohio State University, told The Dispatch.
That leaves Dolan, despite his low polling numbers, hoping he can distinguish himself simply by focusing less on winning the Make America Great bloc.
“There are people up on the stage who are literally fighting for one vote, and that person doesn’t even vote in Ohio,” Dolan said. “And that concern for that one vote doesn’t end up on Election Day. My responsibility is to be the senator from Ohio, for Ohio.”