A Very Trumpy Ohio Senate Primary

The Republican primary to replace Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R), who has opted not to run for re-election, is already a bruising fight for the hearts of President Donald Trump and primary voters who love him.

“Watching this sham and unconstitutional impeachment has made my blood boil and motivated me to run for U.S. Senate,” former state treasurer Josh Mandel said when announcing his candidacy. Although Mandel lost a 2012 Senate race to left-wing incumbent Sherrod Brown and dropped out of the 2018 Senate primary, he remains popular with Ohio’s Republican base.

Laughed off as a “bit player” by Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges when he refused to endorse Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign, Mandel was a vocal critic of Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid to cover able-bodied, working-age, childless Ohioans under Obamacare. Mandel brought $4 million in leftover 2018 campaign funds to the race to replace Portman, but has seen staff turnover that departed fundraisers blame on his campaign finance director – whom he is dating.

Mandel’s appeals to Trump have indulged his contention that the November presidential election was “stolen,” despite the failure of Trump’s legal team to back up his claims. To further prove his pro-Trump bona fides, Mandel has bashed former Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken – who replaced Borges in 2016 and stepped down to enter the Senate race – over her past support for Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of ten Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment after the January 6 Capitol riot.

Timken, meanwhile, is leveraging her Party connections to build a statewide network of endorsers and volunteers. Long a prominent Republican donor before driving out Kasich’s hand-picked Ohio GOP chairman with Trump’s blessing, Timken announced her campaign with a jab at Kasich, claiming she “got rid of the Kasich decay” in a party the governor’s team had turned into “an anti-Trump mess.”

Few Republican activists miss the Kasich devotees who ran the Ohio GOP in the lead-up to 2016, but the Party’s continued practice of endorsing in contested primaries has drawn sharp criticism from the base. The Party’s 2018 endorsements of Gonzalez and liberal Republican Gov. Mike DeWine will be a thorn in Timken’s side, especially with Gonzalez and DeWine facing their own primary challenges next spring.

Kasich, now a pro-union, anti-Second Amendment environmentalist employed at CNN, endorsed Joe Biden last year. His shadow – like DeWine’s – looms over the Senate race.

Axios reported in March that Trump nearly endorsed Timken this spring. His decision not to has left the door open for Mandel and for a Team Kasich technocrat backed by Trump-aligned Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.

JD Vance, the venture capitalist author of bestselling novel Hillbilly Elegy, officially announced last week the campaign he has been unofficially running since Thiel poured $10 million into his super PAC in March.

Support from Thiel and the Mercer family have made Vance a darling of out-of-state media outlets where adoration for Trump and some variant of populist nationalism are mandatory. But when Vance moved back to Ohio from California in 2017, he chose Jai Chabria, Kasich’s right-hand man of 20 years, to guide his political future.

Chabria departed Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign to help Borges try to tilt the Ohio GOP-hosted convention in Kasich’s favor. “To have [Chabria] at the state party where he can more easily assist everyone is a boon for the Kasich campaign,” John Weaver, the disgraced GOP strategist who worked closely with Chabria, said at the time.

“If John Kasich were a building, Jai Chabria would be a cornerstone of that building,” Weaver told reporters later that year.

Chabria remains one of Vance’s top advisors, which sheds light on Vance’s decision to lobby against GOP Obamacare repeal efforts and his criticism of GOP opposition to labor unions.

With some of Portman’s staff already in tow, Timken – while less supportive of free trade – would be most likely to continue the status quo in Portman’s place. Mandel, if he could get through a general election, would more resemble a red state firebrand. Vance would represent a move to the left on health and labor policy.

Portman, who served in Cabinet roles under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, announced in January that he would leave the Senate at the end of his second term due to “partisan gridlock.” First elected to the Senate in 2010, the widely-respected centrist demolished former governor Ted Strickland by more than 20 points in 2016.

Portman’s January announcement set off a flurry of speculation as to which Republicans would run to replace him; local papers floated lists of a dozen or more potential candidates, and several dark horse hopefuls have filed in addition to Mandel, Timken, and Vance. Ohio Democrats (whose bench would be too short for a tee ball team) have lined up behind ten-term Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), who is campaigning as a clone of Sen. Sherrod Brown.

As the Republican field has filled out, Trump’s influence remains clear. Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016, and won the state by the same margin in 2020 in spite of Kasich’s highly publicized Biden endorsement. For better or worse, where Ohio Republican primary campaigns have typically emphasized a candidate’s “conservative” credentials, the most important label for 2022 is “pro-Trump.”