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Former Ohio football star faces conservative rival in GOP primary fight

Former Ohio football star faces conservative rival in GOP primary fight
© The Hill photo illustration

Former college football star Anthony Gonzalez wants to fill the Ohio House seat left open by Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem victories in `18 will not calm party turbulence Election Countdown: Minnesota Dems worry Ellison allegations could cost them key race | Dems struggle to mobilize Latino voters | Takeaways from Tennessee Senate debate | Poll puts Cruz up 9 in Texas Poll: Republican DeWine has 3-point edge over Cordray in Ohio governor's race MORE (R). But first, the former Ohio State wide receiver faces a primary fight against a staunchly conservative opponent who has won support from some former Trump White House staffers.

Gonzalez, who played five seasons in the NFL, currently leads the primary pack in fundraising. He’s also won endorsements from a sitting congressman and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Meghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump MORE (R-Fla.), promising signs for any political novice.

But Gonzalez still faces an internal GOP battle in the May primary. State Rep. Christina Hagan, who’s billed herself as an ardent supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' MORE, has cobbled together both an impressive campaign organization and endorsements from Trump World figures such as former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Spicer: People at White House are 'burnt out' Scaramucci: John McCain, an inspiration for a day of unity MORE and former Trump adviser Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaGorka echoes conservative criticism of Khashoggi in defense of Trump Gorka says US will take 'requisite action' on Saudi Arabia Juan Williams: Trump is tearing the racial fabric MORE.

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Gonzalez was named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) “On the Radar” list, the first part of a “Young Guns” program that highlights promising candidates. But this week, Hagan also joined the program, making the primary rivals two of the 46 GOP candidates featured.

“We have an embarrassment of riches in this district,” said one Republican strategist working on Ohio House races who requested anonymity to discuss the race.

“It’s going to be helpful for both of them to have a public debate about the issues; it will make whoever comes out of the primary stronger.”

Republicans who spoke with The Hill believe that Gonzalez’s fundraising lead and football pedigree will put him in a front-runner position for the May 8 primary. The 16th District opened up after Renacci declared a bid for governor, although he’s since changed his mind and launched a bid for the Senate seat held by Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem victories in `18 will not calm party turbulence MORE (D) instead.  

Gonzalez raised $886,000 in 2017, and had about $750,000 in the bank at the end of that year. Hagan raised $292,000 and has about $200,000 on hand. 

Born in Ohio, Gonzalez made his name as a member of the beloved Ohio State Buckeyes football team. He once made a pivotal reception toward the end of a game against the team’s archrival, the Michigan Wolverines, securing his profile among the Buckeyes faithful. 

“The Buckeye fervor is unlike anything in professional sports, and that’s a significant asset for the Gonzalez campaign,” said Mark Weaver, a GOP strategist and attorney in the state.

“Does that mean any Buckeye can get elected to anything? No. But there are people who will donate to meet you, and get a photo of you, and people who will pay attention to you in a way they would not otherwise. It gives you additional prominence.”

Gonzalez retired from the NFL in 2012 and headed to business school at Stanford and, eventually, a California tech company.

Along with his Rubio endorsement, Gonzalez has earned the support of Rep. Bob GibbsRobert (Bob) Brian GibbsHouse conservatives want ethics probe into Dems' handling of Kavanaugh allegations Judge rules against Trump attempt to delay Obama water rule House Dems add five candidates to ‘Red to Blue’ program MORE (R-Ohio), who represents a nearby district. He’s also received support from Ward “Tim” Timken, a local businessman whose wife heads the state Republican Party.

While Gonzalez has no electoral record, he’s spent the past week rolling out a series of videos and position papers to outline his policies, with an eye toward positioning himself as a pragmatist whose lack of electoral experience won’t be a problem in Washington.

“There are plenty of members in the House with a lot of electoral experience who have shown that doesn’t seem to be a particularly useful experience at times,” Gonzalez told The Hill.

“I’m certainly not from the political world. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the experiences I’ve had in my life.”

Hagan joined the state House in 2011, when she was just 22 years old. She’s consistently won reelection while carving out a reputation as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the body. If elected, Hagan, now 29, would become the youngest congresswoman in history.

Hagan leaned on her conservative reputation in her early messaging, touting her support for a fetal heartbeat bill. That legislation would outlaw abortions once a heartbeat can be detected, which doctors say can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

In one campaign video, Hagan uses pictures of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race MORE and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiGOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Ex-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Pelosi heckled by Miami Republicans, Proud Boys at campaign event MORE (D-Calif.) to warn that “California and New York elites are coming for our guns right here in Ohio.”

“I am and have always been a conservative — I’ve championed conservative bills in the legislature … We’ve run and won with conservative values before,” she said.

“The fact that the NRCC sees us as an asset is proof of what we already know: that we are a good voice for this district.”

She called the prospect of making history as the youngest congresswoman “an honor,” but said it’s more “symbolic of a new wave of public policy efforts to drive down our national debt, preserve our county and prioritize Americans first.”

Hagan’s echo of Trump’s “America First” slogan is no accident.

She spoke at a 2016 Trump campaign rally in Canton, Ohio. And now as a candidate, she’s sought to portray herself as an unabashed supporter of the president and has surrounded herself with Trump allies.

Harlan Hill, a Fox News regular who sits on the president’s reelection advisory board, works on her campaign. Hagan has the endorsements from Scaramucci and Gorka, and Gorka campaigned for her last year.

By contrast, Hagan claims, Gonzalez is “walking on eggshells” about his support for the president. Gonzalez brushed the charge aside, pointing to his praise for how Trump is handling the economy and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“I talk about the things I believe are most important to the district. I don’t pay much, or any, attention to what others in the race are doing. I don’t think that’s productive for me,” he said.

“With respect to the president, I’m a data guy, always have been. If you look objectively at the data — unemployment, [gross domestic product], the stock market, wages — the data tells a very compelling story … and that’s what has me excited, and has the district excited.”

What’s less than clear is how the district’s GOP primary electorate will view Trump in May. All of the counties in the district voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the 2016 GOP primary, with all but one county picking Kasich over Trump by a double-digit margin. Kasich has since become one of Trump’s most outspoken critics in the GOP.

Hagan argued that Trump’s time in office would bring more Republican voters over to his corner.

But if Hagan continues to trail in resources, Weaver believes it’ll be more difficult for her to make her case to turn out those Trump diehards in numbers large enough to overcome Gonzalez’s advantages.

“If the turnout mix is full of energized Trump voters, that strategy could pay off for Christina Hagan,” he said.

“If it’s more traditional Republicans who may like Trump, but didn’t come to the party because of Donald Trump, that’s going to benefit Gonzalez.”

 

--Updated at 3:20 p.m. ET to include new fundraising figures.