The race to fill retiring Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s Senate seat currently features one unofficial candidate and two official ones: a person flirting with QAnon-style conspiracy theories, someone whose Twitter account was recently suspended because of bigoted tweets, and a third person who’s calling for Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s (R-OH) resignation simply because he voted to impeach then-President Trump.
If this primary serves as a window into what the Republican Party will look like heading into the 2022 midterms, it’s not a pretty picture — and one dominated by the divisive, conspiratorial politics favored by Trump. Other midterm races are still taking shape, but in Ohio, it’s becoming clear that Trump’s hold on the party is firmer than ever.
Portman announced his retirement in late January, saying “it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy, and that has contributed to my decision.” He did his best to avoid talking about Trump during the second of his two terms in the Senate, going as far as to claim he didn’t read his incendiary tweets during national television appearances.
"I haven't seen the tweet" says @senrobportman on Trump's tweet attacking intel leaders. But he adds "They're not always right....but that's the best we have. We need to rely on them." pic.twitter.com/cu2gkiJsfZ— Kate Bolduan (@KateBolduan) January 30, 2019
While never exactly a Trump ally, Portman was largely supportive of the former president’s agenda, though he was mildly critical of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results.
Portman did his best to pretend Trump didn’t exist, but the candidates running to be his successor are employing the opposite strategy: The race to fill his seat looks increasingly like a competition to see which candidate can talk about Trump the most.
J.D. Vance has gone full Tucker Carlson
The QAnon-curious figure in the race is J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which was released in June 2016 and was “praised by some publications as a skeleton key to Trumpism,” as my colleague Alissa Wilkinson recently put it in her review of the film adaptation of the book.
Hillbilly Elegy detailed the cultural milieu in which support for a populist demagogue like Trump could thrive. But Vance didn’t try to hide the fact that he wasn’t a Trump fan during the 2016 campaign, saying, “I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place.”
But now that Trump has made it nearly impossible to function in Republican politics without unyielding support for him — recent polling indicates a majority of Republicans would support him in a hypothetical 2024 Republican primary — the 36-year-old Vance is singing a different tune.
In recent months, Vance has approvingly retweeted the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Dinesh D’Souza; done softball interviews with Tucker Carlson and far-right former Trump administration official Seb Gorka; tweeted Trump-style attacks on the media (for instance asking, “Why are so many members of the press such incredible babies?”); and promoted a QAnon-inspired conspiracy theory by suggesting a group of unrelated sexual misconduct cases is evidence of a cabal.
“Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children,” Vance tweeted on February 11.
Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children.— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) February 12, 2021
To the extent that Vance has expressed interest in policy, his platform has largely centered on immigration restrictionism, complaining about Trump being banished from Facebook and Twitter, calling out alleged liberal hypocrisy, and trying to make hay out of Trumpist culture war wedge issues like the supposed cancelation of Dr. Seuss.
eBay removes all listings of the six canceled Dr. Seuss books— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) March 4, 2021
Just a normal day in our totally free and healthy country https://t.co/NlOaHciyjh
In short, Vance has gone full Tucker Carlson.
Vance hasn’t officially entered the Ohio Senate race yet, but he already has a super PAC supporting him called Protect Ohio Values that recently received $10 million from tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel.
Vance’s brand of Trumpism isn’t necessarily as stark as that of the other two candidates in the race — though he’s only posted 98 tweets, just one of them mentions Trump by name. But his soft-pedaling of conspiracy theories, embrace of conspiracy theorists, focus on stoking division with culture war grievances, and attacks on the “elites” (despite his Yale Law School background) indicates whatever reservations he once had about Trumpism have fallen by the wayside.
The other two candidates are working even harder for Trump’s endorsement
The two candidates who have officially launched campaigns to replace Portman are former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken. And, like Vance, neither of them has exactly bathed themselves in glory so far.
Mandel’s Twitter account was recently restricted for “hateful conduct,” as the Cincinnati Enquirer explains:
Mandel’s account created a poll [on March 18] about which type of “illegals” would commit more crimes, “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers.” His campaign later shared that the account was temporarily suspended for 12 hours for violating Twitter’s policies on “hateful conduct.”
While Mandel’s tweet was racist in multiple respects, he’s unrepentant. After his account was unrestricted, he posted a tweet claiming, “Just like President Trump, I was canceled by @twitter @jack yesterday.”
“I wear this as a badge of honor as Big Tech thugs & elites target those who they are most afraid of,” he added. “Our movement of steel-spined Constitutional Conservatives & Trump Warriors will not be silenced.”
Just like President Trump, I was canceled by @twitter @jack yesterday.— Josh Mandel (@JoshMandelOhio) March 19, 2021
I wear this as a badge of honor as Big Tech thugs & elites target those who they are most afraid of.
Our movement of steel-spined Constitutional Conservatives & Trump Warriors will not be silenced: pic.twitter.com/SxHlgmq2xf
Beyond Trump-style bigotry, Mandel’s platform largely seems to be that he loves Trump more than anyone else. His Twitter bio boasts that he was the “1st Statewide Official in Ohio to support President Trump.” When he officially launched his campaign on February 10, he said he’s “going to Washington to fight for President Trump’s America First Agenda.”
Criss-crossing Ohio today & love seeing all the Trump flags still being PROUDLY flown!— Josh Mandel (@JoshMandelOhio) March 20, 2021
We will never back down & we will never give up.
But all this fawning over Trump apparently hasn’t been enough to give Mandel pole position for Trump’s endorsement. That distinction reportedly belongs to Timken, whom Trump wanted to endorse before being talked out of it late last month on the grounds that doing so would be premature, according to Axios.
Timken made headlines a few weeks ago for calling on her Congress member, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, to resign. Gonzalez was one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment.
“President Trump is the leader of our Party and we must have conservative leaders committed to the team if we are going to keep Ohio red and win back majorities in the U.S. House and Senate in 2022,” Timken said in a statement. “Gonzalez should put his constituents and the Republican Party first by resigning from Congress.”
But Timken gave very different comments about Gonzalez before she announced her campaign in February, with her later remarks apparently an indication of what she thinks it’ll take to win the race.
Speaking to Cleveland.com, Timken praised Gonzalez, describing him as “a very effective legislator” and “a very good person.” That interview was conducted after the impeachment vote, so the only thing that changed between then and the statement Timken released calling for Gonzalez’s resignation is that she announced she’s running for office.
The Ohio race is playing out just the way Trump wants it to
Trump’s decisive loss in November to Biden and subsequent campaign to overturn the result — an effort lowlighted by the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol — provided the Republican Party with its latest opportunity to turn the page from Trumpism. But, as has repeatedly been the case since Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, the party refused to take it.
A total of 17 Republicans in the House and Senate voted for Trump’s impeachment or removal in connection with the insurrection. But those Republicans were quickly ostracized from the more powerful MAGA faction of the party. For instance, Trump loyalist Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) traveled to Wyoming to give a speech denouncing House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (WY) for her yes vote for impeachment, and Trump denounced Republicans who voted against him by name to applause during his February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which doubled as a weekend-long celebration of all things Trump.
Trump puts Mitt Romney, "Little Ben Sasse," Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Pat Tomney, and all the House Republicans who voted for his impeachment on blast by name -- concluding with Liz Cheney pic.twitter.com/Me5JvoIslq— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 28, 2021
It’s more than just rhetoric. Trump is attempting a hostile takeover of the GOP by asking his supporters to donate to him instead of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and other prominent Republican groups. He’s also made clear that he thinks “RINOS” (Republicans in name only) like Gonzalez who supported his impeachment should be purged from the party.
And Trump has already endorsed the candidacy of Max Miller, a former White House aide of his who is primarying Gonzalez.
This is partly a story about Ohio, but mostly one about the Republican Party
Ohio is traditionally thought of as a purple, bellwether state, but it has been trending redder since 2012, when then-President Barack Obama carried the state with a slim majority.
In 2016, Trump easily won there, besting Hillary Clinton by more than 8 percentage points. But Trump’s margin looked downright slim compared to Portman’s, who won reelection by more than 20 percentage points over Democratic ex-Gov. Ted Strickland. Trump again carried Ohio easily last November, beating Biden by about the same margin as he beat Clinton four years earlier.
This isn’t to say that Democrats can no longer win in Ohio. The other US senator from the state, Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown, won reelection for his third term in 2018 over ex-Rep. Jim Renacci by a comfortable margin of about 7 percentage points. But all else being equal, whoever prevails in the Republican primary — particularly if they have Trump’s blessing — will likely be the favorite to fill Portman’s seat.
Ultimately, however, the story of the primary to replace Portman is more about the direction of the Republican Party than it is about Ohio. The defining issue of the race is Trump — how much a candidate supports him, whether he has endorsed them, and how like him they are. Losing reelection and presiding over the GOP’s loss of both chambers of Congress wasn’t enough to shake his hold on the party.