Gibbons rises as Ohio’s Senate GOP primary nears end
Ohio investment banker Mike Gibbons has shot to the top of the polls in the state’s Senate GOP field in recent weeks ahead of what is expected to be a bloody final sprint to the May 3 primary.
Gibbons’s massive advertising blitz has helped him leapfrog several opponents to lead in recent polls. However, the rivals he’s surpassed are expected to make him their prime target with their own late-primary ad buys, betting that Gibbons’s early and consistent screen time has merely rented instead of bought some voters.
“It’s a clear sign that when you’re able to self-fund and own the majority of the airwaves early telling your story, you can move numbers. The question is whether or not those numbers will hold as the others ramp up advertising,” said Jeff Sadosky, a former aide to retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose seat Gibbons is trying to fill. “It’s too early to tell.”
Gibbons had been stuck in the primary’s middle tier, but three consecutive polls in recent weeks showed him jumping over competitors like former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance and former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken for the lead.
A February poll from The Hill and Emerson College showed Gibbons with a 7-point lead; a March survey from a pro-Vance super PAC had Gibbons up 4 points; and a Fox News poll last week showed Gibbons with a 2-point edge.
Operatives in Ohio attributed that rise to gargantuan ad spending that has consistently blanketed Ohio airwaves.
Gibbons’s campaign has dumped more than $11 million into ads, almost all of which has come from the candidate’s personal coffers. More than $7.5 million has already run, with more than $3 million lined up heading into the primary.
Those ads have both have stuck to a consistent message touting Gibbons as a businessman and outsider while hitting his opponents as insufficiently conservative. He’s also walked a line by embracing former President Trump while avoiding what one Ohio GOP strategist called “dog whistle” issues.
“He is delivering the message that he is ‘Trump tough’ without sounding like a buffoon,” the source said, adding that Gibbons is “where you want to be two months out.”
Gibbons’s sprawling presence has been complemented by far smaller television buys from his opponents, who are likely waiting until closer to the primary to empty their coffers.
Those dynamics have even those working against him recognizing Gibbons as the nominal front-runner.
“Anyone who’s telling you anything otherwise is totally spinning. Gibbons is the front-runner,” said one GOP strategist supporting another candidate. “He’s a nominal front-runner, but he’s the front-runner, and it all has to do with his TV spend and the lack of negative ad dollars spent against him.”
While Gibbons’s ad buy has helped propel him to the top of the pack, his rivals are seeking to make his new front-runner status temporary with an expected fusillade of ads that will run before the May primary, which could mark a true test of his candidacy.
“I think there’s a consensus that while his growth is real, it’s happened without having to be a target of any incoming negative attacks,” said one national GOP strategist based in Ohio. “Once he takes a shot, he won’t be able to just run his own positive campaign and take shots at other people at will. We’ll see then whether or not he has a glass jaw or whether he’s built to last.”
Most of the candidates have run on similar pro-Trump messages. However, opponents say they think Gibbons is vulnerable on abortion after saying during a failed 2018 Senate run that he opposed abortion but was “not a woman” and was “pro-people.”
Gibbons insists he is “100 percent pro-life,” but critics maintain they see an opening.
“Gibbons does not strike me as somebody who is ready for prime time and could be in a lot of trouble as the spotlight starts shining on him,” said the strategist supporting an opponent.
On top of knocking Gibbons, other candidates are anticipated to also tout their own biographies to win over the large number of undecided voters — and even some Gibbons backers.
“When these other buys start, his support will dwindle, because right now the only support he has is because, in large part, he’s been the only one up on TV,” said state Sen. Niraj Antani (R), who is neutral in the race. “I would almost say that his supporters right now in these polls, they’re truly undecided voters who happened to have seen his TV ad right before the poll was taken.”
Already, other candidates and outside groups are dumping seven-figure sums into the race.
But Gibbons’s campaign says it’s ready for the barrage.
“We believe we are best positioned to win this race and are ready to take on whatever mud our opponents sling to try to save their sinking campaigns and look forward to becoming the Republican nominee on May 3,” said Gibbons campaign spokesperson Samantha Cotton.
Yet even ahead of the likely onslaught, Gibbons currently has more money reserved for ads than his main contenders, meaning that even if he has not cemented a primary win before he’s targeted, he’s likely bought himself a spot in the primary’s top tier.
“I think the danger for him is you have the whack-a-mole situation where he pops up a little bit, the others focus on him and try and bring him down. I do, however, think it’s sustainable for him to stay in the conversation,” said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven. “He may not be able to purchase a win, but he’s purchased relevancy.”
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