CLEVELAND, Ohio – There’s only one voter who matters now in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, and he’s not even registered in Ohio.
If the past three weeks are any indication, former President Donald Trump will be a looming specter over the candidates as he dangles a potential endorsement. Both former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken and former Treasurer Josh Mandel, so far the only entrants in the race, have made it clear they’re willing to burn bridges and curry favor with the former president to any degree to get that coveted backing.
Already, the race has been marked by insincerity, dubious allegations and a willingness to inflict collateral damage, just to get a statement from the former president. Timken seemed the early favorite, given she was Trump’s hand-picked choice for ORP chair in 2017 and her closeness with Trump adviser and current Chairman Bob Paduchik. But last week, the former president was apparently talked out of backing Timken or any other candidate this early in the game, per a report in Axios.
It was apparently enough to send Timken’s team into a panic. On Monday, Timken denounced Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a Rocky River Republican, for his vote to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, saying Gonzalez should resign because his vote “undermined his ability to effectively represent” his district.
It was a flip-flop from just a month prior, when Timken called Gonzalez an “effective legislator” and “very good person,” saying he had a “rational reason” for why he voted that way.
The race has been like that since the onset, with Mandel attacking Timken multiple times for her ties to Republican former Gov. John Kasich – a Trump critic – and now, Gonzalez. Mandel conveniently leaves out that he, at one point, supported Kasich and, despite describing himself as Trump’s number one ally in Ohio, backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary.
For all intents and purposes, the Republican primary has devolved into something that looks like a junior high squabble, with both Timken and Mandel trying to convince everyone that they sat with the popular kids at lunch. No petty argument is too petty, all to get a glance or “hello” from the popular kid and an invite to the party (who, in this analogy, also recently lost the big game).
It’s a strange phenomenon. Most of the time, candidates try to convince voters they are independent thinkers with big ideas on how to better peoples’ lives. They don’t want voters to think they are beholden to any individual or special interests. Endorsements are valuable, but not the sole focus of a campaign.
Mandel and Timken have turned that idea upside down. The only thing that matters to them at this point is showing that they are sufficiently devoted to the former president. It’s not even about who supports the Trump agenda the most, but who supports Trump the man the most.
And the message from Trump to Mandel, Timken or anyone else who might want to get in the race? His support is up for grabs, but you have to earn it.
“This is not a race about policy at all,” said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist who worked for candidates including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and has since become one of the most high-profile anti-Trump conservatives.
State Sen. Jay Hottinger, a Newark Republican, has been critical of the back and forth on social media and said he hoped it would end soon.
“What people want is to elect leaders who are addressing problems in their life and make their day-to-day living better,” Hottinger said. “Right now, I haven’t seen any sort of discussion around those sorts of very, very important topics. I hope this little dance that’s going on right now ends at some point in time and candidates will start focusing on what’s important to people.”
Hottinger noted that the field probably wasn’t set, with others thinking of getting in the race.
“There are a couple candidates out of the gate early, but they’re both kind of running in the same lane and it creates a really wide opportunity for somebody else to fill the void and say, ‘Here are the problems in Ohio, here are the problems in the country and this is what I’m going to do to address those.’”
Mandel and Timken have placed themselves in a somewhat precarious situation, so them focusing on anything other than Trump in the short term is unlikely. Until either of them can prove they are actually Trump’s favorite, there really isn’t an incentive for them to stop, short of voters telling them to.
Most agreed a Trump endorsement is significant, though how significant is unknown. There is no denying that Trump, who won the state by 8 percentage points in November, is still beloved among Ohio Republicans.
But the 2022 primary is a long way away and opinions shift. In January, the bulk of the Republican Party thought it fit to place at least some of the blame for the siege on the Capitol on Trump, including the Senate seat’s current holder, Rob Portman.
A little more than a month later, even tepid support for someone who was critical of Trump is apparently enough for excommunication. How much Trump matters by May 2022 is simply a mystery.
“Maybe by this point the Republican Party will still demand loyalty to win a primary,” Miller said. “Maybe that’s wrong and Trump continues to unravel more and more and the instinct people had after he incited a riot is the right one. I think they’re making a short-term political calculus that is right for the short term. I don’t know that we know how things look next spring.”
For the time being, this is likely the reality of the Republican primary. Mandel, who had little connection to Trump’s 2020 campaign, will continue his line of attack on Timken, trying to paint her as something less than a true Trumpster. Timken, meanwhile, will react by trying to prove she is the real MAGA candidate, even if it means turning against fellow Republicans she once supported.
So, until an endorsement comes, expect the groveling to continue.
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