Skip to content
‘This Race Needs To Be About Ohio’
Go to my account

‘This Race Needs To Be About Ohio’

The GOP primary to replace Sen. Rob Portman is getting crowded. Will it all come down to Trump’s endorsement?

Jane Timken was choosing her words very carefully. 

I had just asked her why Anthony Gonzalez’ vote to impeach President Trump—which she deemed “rational” back in late January, even if she didn’t agree with it—was now cause for his resignation.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “I always took the position that Anthony Gonzalez’ vote was wrong. The impeachment was unconstitutional and a scam, and I’ve made a very clear statement that he can no longer be effective representing the 16th District because he’s gone against the wishes of his constituents.”

I read her exact words praising Gonzalez back to her: “I think he’s been a very effective legislator. I don’t know if I would have voted the way he did. I think he’s spending some time explaining to folks his vote, and I think he’s got a rational reason why he voted that way. I think he’s an effective legislator, and he’s a very good person.”

Timken repeated herself, more slowly this time. “Let me be very clear,” she articulated. “I disagreed with his vote. The impeachment was wrong. It was unconstitutional, and I clearly disagree with his vote.”

Her frustration was both palpable and understandable. Since that initial interview in late January, Timken—the chair of the Ohio GOP throughout the Trump presidency—had decided to run for the retiring Sen. Rob Portman’a seat in Ohio, putting her political future almost entirely in the hands of the most volatile and vindictive public figure in recent memory.

The 65-year-old Portman’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection next year sent a political shockwave across the Buckeye State. Within two and a half weeks, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel had launched his campaign for the seat. Timken threw her hat in the ring a week later. Nearly a half-dozen others—author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan, Reps. Mike Turner, Bill Johnson, and Steve Stivers—have publicly flirted with potential runs.

All would be competing in the Republican primary; the Democratic field is far less crowded. Rep. Tim Ryan and Dr. Amy Acton—the state’s health director throughout the pandemic—are both said to be considering a run, but neither has formally launched a campaign. 

This imbalance makes sense—Ohio is not the swing state it once was, and it’s trending redder. Although Barack Obama won it by 4 percentage points in 2008, that margin fell to 1.9 in 2012. Both Democratic nominees since—Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden—lost the state to Donald Trump by exactly 8.1 percentage points. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has managed to win a handful of statewide races in the intervening years, but his continued success—like Sen. Joe Manchin’s in West Virginia—appears to be grandfathered in from another political era. 

“It’s just become a hard state for Democrats,” said J. Miles Coleman, elections analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter of political analysis published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There’s been some blue shifts in the suburbs, but not enough to make up for Appalachia and working class areas of the state stampeding rightward.” 

The bulk of the action, therefore, will be on the Republican side: Whoever prevails there will, by Coleman’s estimation, have an overwhelming chance of becoming a U.S. senator. Importantly, the race will also present an early test of whether the 45th president’s GOP kingmaker status extends beyond his White House tenure.

Trump, by all accounts, is relishing the role. He was reportedly set to endorse Timken about a month ago, but his inner circle advised him to let the process play out a little longer. Timken and Mandel made the pilgrimage down to Mar-a-Lago a few weeks later, according to Politico, auditioning directly for the former president’s blessing. 

In an impromptu meeting with the candidates, Trump heard their pitches. Mandel touted his alleged polling lead and his relatively early support for Trump in 2016. Timken highlighted her long relationship with Trump, and her role in helping him win Ohio. Bernie Moreno, a tech company executive also thinking about hopping in the race, boasted that his daughter worked for the Trump campaign in 2020.

If whoever secures the Republican nomination is likely to win the general, and about 60 percent of Republican voters remain wedded to the former president, it makes sense that the candidates are treating Trump’s endorsement like it’s the whole ballgame.

Timken—who recently threw her weight behind an Ohio lawmaker’s proposal to rename Mosquito Lake State Park after Trump—mentioned the former president by name three times in the first 32 seconds of our interview, acknowledging the prominent role she expects him to play in the primary. “I’ve always been a proud supporter of President Trump,” she said. “He knows how hard I’ve worked to deliver Ohio for him in 2020 and all the work that I’ve put in for the last four years. And I would gladly have his endorsement and would be honored. President Trump is the leader of our party. He’s going to have an outside influence in Republican politics going forward, and I welcome his endorsement.”

“Before [Timken] became [Ohio GOP] Chairman, John Kasich had transformed the party organization into an anti-Trump mess,” her campaign website reads. “With the support of President Trump, Jane cleaned house, got rid of the Kasich decay, and completely transformed the Party into a well-oiled machine that won conservative victories and advanced an America First agenda at every level—and delivered a second victory for President Trump in our state.”

If Timken is trying to win the endorsement through flattery, Mandel is looking to earn it through imitation, flattery’s sincerest form. This is the former treasurer’s third attempt at a U.S. Senate seat—he lost to Sherrod Brown in 2012, and dropped out of the GOP primary in 2018 due to a health issue his now-ex wife was dealing with—and Mandel 3.0 is far more pugilistic than the previous iterations.

“Watching this sham and unconstitutional impeachment has made my blood boil and motivated me to run for U.S. Senate,” he said in February. “It’s sickening to see radical liberals and fake Republicans in Washington engage in this second assault on President Donald Trump and the millions of us who supported him. I’m going to Washington to fight for President Trump’s America First Agenda and to pulverize the Uniparty—that cabal of Democrats and Republicans who sound the same, stand for nothing and are more interested in cocktail party invites than defending the Constitution.”

His campaign rhetoric has only heated up since. The presidential election? “Stolen.” Timken? A “weathervane” and a “turncoat.” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez? “Traitor.” Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine? “Total squish establishment failure.” Vice President Kamala Harris? “Hates what we stand for as Americans.” Joe Biden? “Not all there” and “an absolute sugar daddy to illegal immigrants.” A campaign pitch captioned “HUNTING RINOs IS FUN 🦏 🎯” featured a photo of a gun-wielding Mandel from his days in the Marine Corps. His Twitter account was temporarily suspended after he asked his followers which type of “illegals” commit more crimes: “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers.”

Mandel—who did not respond to multiple interview requests—is, in many ways, very well-positioned to secure the nomination. He launched his bid with a $4.3 million warchest from his previous campaigns, and those runs have served to bolster his profile in the state. A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Mandel’s net favorability at -9 percentage points, but 61 percent of respondents knew who he was—significantly more than Timken’s 36 percent. Though it’s early, name ID can be half the battle in a crowded primary.

But Mandel’s recent turn is alienating some longtime allies. “I was lined up to be a supporter of his campaign,” said one person who’s known Mandel for years and considers him a friend. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now, just based on some of the crap that he’s done over the past couple of weeks. It’s really disheartening to see.”

The person, who requested anonymity due to the nature of his relationship with Mandel, still believes the former treasurer will win—but he isn’t sure he wants him to. “I am at a point now where I can’t figure out if he actually believes this crap, or if this is just part of gaining the [Trump] endorsement,” he said. “I’ve got a public reputation—I can’t raise money for this guy. Like how the hell am I going to raise money for him when he’s, out of both sides of his mouth, he can’t shut up about the Muslim thing. It’s ridiculous, and it’s totally offensive.”

A Mandel nomination—given his “far-right stances and outlandish comments”—may be Democrats’ best chance at making the race competitive, said Coleman, the elections analyst. And that’s a message some potential candidates could use to knock Mandel down a peg or two. 

“I think we still remain a swing state, and so I think that we have to have a message that appeals to all voters,” Rep. Mike Turner told me the morning after he announced he was considering a run. “And I certainly believe that being able to have solutions that respond to the needs of Ohio and the needs of our country necessitate that you have a message for all Ohioans. And not just a partisan message.”

Turner—the longtime mayor of Dayton, Ohio, who has served in the U.S House of Representatives since 2003—would bring something else to the race that Timken and Mandel can not: legislative experience. “Ohio has a history of electing people who, Day 1, can do the job,” he said. “And I think that’s what people are looking for. So we’re doing a tour through Ohio, talking to voters to find out what their issues are, what they think are important, and how that matches both my experience, my work that I’ve actually done, the accomplishments that I have in Congress.”

Rep. Bill Johnson, an Air Force veteran who has represented Ohio’s 6th Congressional District since 2011, may put forth a similar, albeit Trumpier, pitch. “I haven’t made a decision yet, but I am considering [a Senate run],” he said last week, before taking a thinly veiled shot at Timken. “There’s a big difference between being a party chairwoman where you don’t have to take a position on the issues, and having a voting record where you have to. … It’s one thing to say that you’ve been a supporter of the president, it’s something else to have the voting record that you can prove that.”

And Johnson—whose rural and industrial district includes much of Ohio’s eastern border—does have that voting record. “I don’t know if you saw the survey that came out by Axios last fall that has me ranked number one in Ohio in terms of supporting Donald Trump’s policies,” he boasted. “Let’s face it: Donald Trump’s policies were good for our state, they were good for my region.”

Insofar as policy has been a factor in the race at all early on, it’s been through that lens: “Donald Trump’s policies.”

“I’ve been proudly advancing the America First agenda and standing up for President Trump’s agenda for the last four years,” Timken said. “When I see what the Democrats and their disastrous policies and their far-left policies are doing to this country, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines. … And when they roll back the policies steered against China, when they canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, when they opened the border—which is disastrous for our communities in terms of drug trafficking and human trafficking—we need someone who’s going to stand up and fight for Ohioans and put Ohioans first in American families and businesses and workers first.”

Mandel received raucous applause from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience a few weeks ago when he summed himself up as “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump.” His campaign website does not yet have a policy section, but a press release argued that Republicans must “keep the foot on the gas and build off the momentum of the Trump presidency.”

“We need a fighter in the Senate who will fight to build the wall, combat China’s economic cheating and advance conservative policies that gave us the greatest economy in American history.”

It’s early in the race—the primary date isn’t even set yet—but the contrast thus far between the declared candidates and who they’re running to replace is stark. Perhaps more so than any other current senator, Rob Portman—President George H.W. Bush’s director of legislative affairs, President George W. Bush’s U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget—was in Congress to legislate.

When Portman announced his retirement on January 25, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “big loss for the entire Senate”—and he meant it. “[Portman’s] mastery of policy, experience across branches of government, friendly disposition, and relentless focus on results have made him a powerful force for good and a champion for Ohioans under presidential administrations of both parties,” he said. “Both the Republican conference and the institution as a whole will be worse off when Rob departs.”

Brown, Portman’s Democratic counterpart in Ohio, acknowledged the same. “Rob and I have worked together on issues that matter to Ohioans, from protecting the health of Lake Erie, to better enforcing our trade laws, to helping Ohioans who are struggling with addiction,” he said. “We’ve not always agreed with one another, but we’ve always been able to put our differences aside to do what’s best for our state.”

Matt Dolan—a state senator in Ohio who is also “seriously thinking” about mounting a bid for the seat—had a lot to say about Portman and his legacy. “The best way to describe Rob is he has been a statesman,” Dolan said. “He has conducted himself in a way that honors public service. And I think we have never been embarrassed because of Rob Portman.”

Dolan—whose family owns the Cleveland Indians—has not embraced the former president like his potential opponents. His Twitter account has mentioned Trump just once, in 2017: “Read my statement on President Trump’s delay of Asian Carp plan for the Great Lakes.” In our conversation last month, Dolan waxed poetic about the state budgets he’s helped pass as chair of the Finance Committee in the Ohio Senate, poverty reduction programs he’s been involved in, his efforts to create a “water economy” around Lake Erie, and legislation regarding the blockchain.

I asked him if the GOP should continue to tether itself to Trump, or if it’s time to forge a different path. “If you mean tethering yourself to Trump to have low taxes, to have a strong border, to have a strong, stand-up relationship to China, to [make] sure that our regulations on businesses are few, then yeah, that should be the Republican Party principles,” he said. 

But he was also critical of efforts to recreate Trump’s style—particularly Mandel’s. “Polarizing and branding oneself is not leadership,” he said. “Leadership is understanding the problem, coming up with solutions to the problems, and bringing diverse opinions across the finish line to solve the problems. … Leadership is not just tweeting out bombastic statements. There’s no result there. It’s just branding.”

J.D. Vance. (Photograph by Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty Images.)

Looming over the race like a shadow is J.D. Vance. The author of Hillbilly Elegy has yet to declare for the race, but has an incredibly compelling narrative—and $10 million from tech billionaire Peter Thiel supporting his super PAC. 

His story is one that reached the top of the New York Timesbest-seller list and your Netflix queue: The 36-year-old was born into a broken family in Middletown, Ohio, and, after enlisting in the Marines and serving in Iraq, worked his way through Ohio State University, eventually reaching Yale Law School and co-founding a venture capital firm. His memoir’s release in mid-2016 perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the Trump phenomenon, and the white working-class voters that fueled it. National media outlets labeled him their “Trump whisperer.”

But the Trump whisperer almost certainly didn’t vote for Trump—at least in 2016. And that may come back to haunt him.

“I think there’s a chance, if I feel like Trump has a really good chance of winning, that I might have to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton,” he told NPR in August 2016. “Ultimately I think I’ll probably vote third party. I might vote for this new guy who I really like, Evan McMullin, who I actually met the other day. But I think that I’m going to vote third party because I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.”

Vance is no longer voicing his discomfort with Trump if he still has it, and has cleared his Twitter feed of anything prior to January 23, 2021—focusing since on vaccine passports, the crisis on the southern border, and the power of Big Tech. In establishment Republicans’ ideal world, Vance could serve as a bridge between the Trump and non-Trump wings of the party and avoid alienating too many moderate, suburban voters; McConnell, in fact, tried to recruit him to run against Sherrod Brown in 2018.

But Vance may actually be more popular on the coasts than he is back home, where he is far more anonymous than Mandel, or even Timken. Just 28 percent of respondents in that Public Policy Polling survey had an opinion of him, and for more than two-thirds of them, that opinion was negative. $10 million in advertising could certainly go a long way toward overcoming that deficit, as could an endorsement from Trump. But that would require the former president to overlook past personal slights—something he famously does not do.

Is there a viable path to the nomination without Trump’s support? The answer to that question will define not just this one Ohio race, but the next half decade of Republican politics.

One Senate GOP strategist (who isn’t working in Ohio) says maybe. “Trump’s endorsement has a decent chance of getting [whoever he picks] across the finish line to the nomination,” he said. “But it’s not a guarantee, because each of these candidates has some sort of claim on the Trump brand.” 

Trump may not endorse at all, this strategist hypothesized, out of a fear that he picks a loser. “But then again, he’s not a rational person,” he continued. “So he could just decide one day that he wants to endorse one of them, and that’s it.”

The uncertainty is weighing on the candidates—and potential candidates. “That’s one of the calculations that I’m doing to determine whether there’s a path to victory in 2022,” Dolan said when asked if a contender could win without Trump’s backing.

Turner is hoping the answer is yes. His listening tour launch video highlights his defense of Trump during the 2019 impeachment trial, but the congressman didn’t sound like someone preparing to win the former president’s support. “Endorsements are certainly important, but I think the most important endorsement is the Ohio voter, and this race needs to be about Ohio.”

We’ll see.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.