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GOP hopefuls fight for Trump's favor in Ohio Senate race
The race for former President Trump's endorsement in Ohio's GOP Senate primary is putting several candidates on a collision course that some Republicans fear could hobble the party in the 2022 midterm elections.
Former state Treasurer Josh Mandel touts himself as the first statewide official in Ohio to have backed Trump's presidential aspirations. Jane Timken, the former Ohio GOP chair, boasts that she was "hand-picked" by the former president to run the state Republican Party. And J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and author who was highly critical of Trump in 2016, has cast himself as something of a convert to Trump and his political movement.
Trump has yet to hint at which candidate could receive his endorsement, and those in his orbit say a decision isn't likely to come soon. But that hasn't stopped the GOP hopefuls in Ohio from fighting for the title of Trump acolyte - a fight that has become increasingly bitter and confrontational.
"It's early and there's still time for them to sort this out," one Ohio Republican said. "But as much as we can say that Ohio's a red state now, I think the right Democrat can compete. At some point you have to stop making the race about other Republicans and make it about what the Democrats are doing."
Mandel, Timken and Vance are hardly the only candidates jockeying for Trump's support. The primary also features Mike Gibbons, an investment banker who co-chaired Trump's fundraising efforts in Ohio in 2016, and businessman Bernie Moreno, both of whom have hewed closely to the former president in their Senate bids.
The tensions between the candidates flared in March during a private sit-down with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., when four of the candidates - Mandel, Timken, Gibbons and Moreno - were forced into a showdown in front of the former president. One person familiar with the meeting said that the most direct confrontation took place between Mandel and Timken.
The infighting hasn't died down since then. Mandel, in particular, has repeatedly targeted Timken and Vance, while touting himself as the one true Trump loyalist in the race. Timken, meanwhile, has been quick to fire back at Mandel. In a bitter exchange on Twitter last week, the former Ohio GOP chair mocked Mandel by noting that he had run for Senate unsuccessfully twice before.
"LOL, tough-guy @JoshMandelOhio is the definition of a career politician (worse, a failed one)," Timken wrote.
Public polling in the GOP primary has been scarce, but internal surveys from Mandel's and Timken's campaigns released in June before Vance entered the race showed Mandel in the lead with Timken trailing in second place.
A more recent poll, conducted in July by the GOP firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates for a political action committee (PAC) supporting Vance, found Vance taking second place with 12 percent support. Mandel still led the pack with 21 percent support, while Timken tied for third place with Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who has expressed interest in the race but has not announced a campaign.
The GOP candidates are vying to replace Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a relative moderate in the Trump era who announced in January that he will not seek reelection in 2022. Democrats see his retirement as a rare opportunity to compete in a state that lurched to the right during the Trump years, even though many acknowledge that winning the Senate seat will be an uphill battle.
"I do think the Democrats can be competitive, with all the caveats that we'll get the right candidate and that sort of stuff," one Ohio Democrat familiar with Senate races said. "I still think Ohio is purple-ish. We just have more of a red tinge now."
Democrats are dealing with a much less crowded primary field. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has emerged as the establishment favorite, racking up endorsements from the likes of Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Ohio AFL-CIO.
While Ryan has dominated the Democratic field so far, he's facing a new challenge from progressive activist and lawyer Morgan Harper, who jumped into the race last week. Harper ran a high-profile, albeit unsuccessful, primary campaign last year against Beatty with the backing of progressive groups like Justice Democrats.
Absent a contentious Democratic primary, the party is hoping that the infighting among the Republican candidates will give them an advantage in the general election.
"When you look at the Republican candidates for the Senate, it's like a bunch of 12-year-olds on a playground that are sticking their tongues out at each other and saying: Donald Trump loves me more than he loves you," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who won reelection in 2018, said on MSNBC.
"In the end, voters are going to say, they're all talking about the past in Trump," he added.
Still, there's reason to believe that the Trump name carries outsize weight among Ohio Republicans. The former president carried the state in both 2016 and 2020 by just over 8 percentage points despite former President Obama's two victories there.
At the same time, Democrats have had few wins to brag about in Ohio in recent years. The 2020 election saw the party lose seats in the state legislature, while Trump carried Mahoning County, a labor stronghold, making him the first Republican in nearly 50 years to win the area.
Mike Hartley, a Republican strategist and former aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), dismissed the notion that the contentious primary could hamper the GOP's chances in next year's general election, noting Ohio's rightward shift in recent years and Portman's double-digit margins of victory in 2010 and 2016.
"They'll get through the primary. They might be bloodied, but it's still a redder state than it has been," he said. "I don't think it's that much of a concern. The voters will rally around a Republican candidate, because they connect better with the voters of Ohio than the Democrats."
Hartley said the GOP primary is likely to come down to authenticity. Trump's endorsement carries weight in Ohio, he said, but voters "can smell bullshit; they can tell if you're genuine or not."
"Endorsements matter, but ultimately it's the judgement on the candidate, particularly at the statewide level," Hartley said. "It goes back to them being genuine. You're seeing that play out right now among the five."
"I think they're all supportive of former President Trump and his policies and such. But it's about who's a genuine candidate? We'll see what happens. Five well-funded candidates is an awful lot."
--Updated at 12:23 p.m.