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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: GOP Senate primary may be Ohio's ugliest ever

A crowd of around 1,000 people gather at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville to hear the GOP candidates for the US Senate state their cases.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
A crowd of around 1,000 people gather at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville to hear the GOP candidates for the US Senate state their cases.

This Republican U.S. Senate primary is something like the running gag in The Simpsons about the Springfield tire fire – a smoking mountain of burning car tires smack in the middle of town that nobody can find a way to extinguish.

It just burns on and on, stinking up the town and driving the good townsfolk of Springfield insane.

Yes, just like the Ohio GOP Senate primary, which has descended into meanness and pettiness and just plain craziness unlike anything ever seen in Ohio Republican politics.

It's all because five of the principal candidates – former state treasurer Josh Mandel, former Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, investment banker Mike Gibbons and car dealer Bernie Moreno – have spent most of the year crawling on their hands and knees to curry the favor of their Fearless Leader, Donald Trump.

Only Matt Dolan, the state senator from suburban Cleveland, has not joined in the bowing and scraping in this race to the bottom. He has been rewarded by languishing near the bottom of the polls.

Donald Trump, who won Ohio's electoral votes by 8 percentage points in both 2016 and 2020, is the object of their desire because these candidates seem to believe with every fiber of their beings that, come next May, GOP primary voters will blindly follow whichever candidate they believe to be the Trumpiest.

"Republican politics in Ohio has taken a very abrupt right turn," said David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. "Ohio has gone with reasonable, respectable Republicans to angry, mean-spirited candidates in the blink of an eye. It's remarkable."

Ohio, Niven said, has had a long tradition of electing Republicans who were conservative, to be sure, but who could never be mistaken for extremist – people like George Voinovich, Rob Portman, Mike DeWine and John Kasich.

"These are people who seem to have come out of the George H.W. Bush school of politics," Niven said.

You could never imagine one of the aforementioned Republicans saying the kind of things that Mandel – who seems to be the leader of the pack in inflammatory rhetoric – does, including saying that he refuses to call President Biden "president" because Donald Trump was really elected and the whole election was a fraud.

Or how about this nugget Mandel dropped on Ohioans after President Biden issued a vaccine mandate for federal employees back in September:

"Do not comply with the tyranny," Mandel tweeted, in a rather ominous tone. "When the Gestapo show up at your door, you know what to do."

Andrew Weinstein, chair of the Democratic Lawyers Council, said that statement by Mandel amounted to "inciting violence and invoking a Nazi organization."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international Jewish organization, fired back with its own tweet, aimed at Mandel, who is Jewish.

"Being asked to wear a mask or take an FDA-approved vaccine is not equivalent to the actions of the Gestapo in Nazi-era Germany or the systemic annihilation of an entire group of people," the ADL said.

They asked for an apology from Mandel. Instead, he told them they should be apologizing to him.

Strange as such rhetoric is, it is not the strangest thing going on in this Dumpster fire of a Senate primary.

The strangest thing is the amount of money being spent to tear down Vance, formerly of Middletown and now a wealthy author and venture capitalist, whose campaign has benefited from a Super PAC funded by an even more successful venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who backed Trump's campaign.

The Club for Growth, a conservative organization funded in large part by billionaires, has endorsed Mandel and has spent nearly $1 million so far in TV ads that do not mention Mandel but go after Vance with video of statements of he made in 2016 which were not exactly reverential toward Trump.

"I'm a 'Never Trump' guy," Vance says in one of the video clips. "I never liked him. As somebody who doesn’t like Trump, I might have to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton."

Another clip: "I didn’t vote for Trump because I can't stomach him. I think that he is noxious."

And there are a few bits from Twitter where the 2016-Vance calls Trump "reprehensible" and "an idiot."

Gibbons, who seems to enjoy filming TV ads on football fields, has spent $500,000 on a TV ad bashing Vance for the same statements, asking the question, "Who's cheering for the wrong team?"

The 2021-Vance loudly proclaims that he was a Trump fan in the 2020 campaign because he could see how much Trump meant to the working poor that Vance wrote about in Hillbilly Elegy.

Why are they going after Vance?

"This is a mystery to me," Niven said. "I haven't seen anything that tells me he needs to be taken seriously as a candidate."

But, generally, when one candidate goes nuclear on another, it means that the candidate perceives the object of the attack as a threat.

That's the Vance campaign's explanation anyway.

"When everybody from the leftwing media to failed Senate candidates and their DC establishment allies are spending millions attacking J.D., it means only one thing: J.D. is winning," Taylor Van Kirk, press secretary of the Vance campaign, told WVXU.

Well, maybe so.

If all of this money is being spent to curry favor with Trump and win his endorsement – well, it's not working.

Trump, believe it or not, has been all over the Club for Growth's back, complaining that the ads that feature Vance trashing Trump in 2016 are hurting his standing among Ohio voters, who voted for him twice in presidential elections.

He can't stand hearing anyone say anything negative about him. No way, no how.

Typical Trump: It's all about me.

Of course, Trump hasn't endorsed anybody in this race. He may never. He's already got the one thing he wanted out of Ohio in 2022 – he helped force out northeast Ohio congressman Anthony Gonzalez, one of 10 GOP House members to vote to impeach Trump back in January.

Trump recruited a former White House sycophant to challenge Gonzalez – a former Ohio State and Indianapolis Colts football star – and Gonzalez decided not to run again.

That's all Trump cared about. Getting rid of Gonzalez and making sure nobody cut into his Ohio approval rating.

All the debasing and humiliating themselves by the GOP Senate candidates may, in the end, come to naught.

But somebody's got to win this messed-up primary and whoever that may be is going to have to run statewide – where there are plenty of 'Never Trump' voters and Republicans who won't transfer their love for Trump to someone else.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan is the favorite for the Democratic nomination; he is being challenged by Morgan Harper, formerly of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a self-proclaimed progressive.

"One of these Republicans is going to have to run statewide and that is an entirely different matter than running in a Republican primary, especially in a primary where loyalty to Trump is all the candidates talk about," Niven said. "It will be a tough race."

In the end, all the crawling and begging for Trump's approval the GOP Senate candidates are doing could only end up getting them scraped knees.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.