Commentary: The Hunt For Remorseful Republicans In Ohio

Aug 12, 2020

There is no doubt that in Ohio there are a whole lot of Republican voters who are feeling buyer's remorse today for falling under the spell of Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump campaigned like a magician who promised, with certainty, that he was the only one who could save the nation and Make America Great Again.

They may not have donned red MAGA hats and showed up at rallies screaming and shouting their fealty to the king of the political one-liners, but, in the end, they did what Republicans usually do: They voted for the presidential candidate nominated by their party.

We may be about to see just how many of those remorseful Republicans there are in Ohio, a state that has suddenly become very relevant and very much a battleground in the contest between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

Several months ago, political operatives on both sides were writing off Ohio because Trump managed to win the state by 8 percentage points – mainly due to the incompetence and unforced errors of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Now comes along Operation Grant, a political committee founded by two national organizations made up of Republicans who want Trump gone. One is the Lincoln Project, a PAC that has spent millions so far on tough-as-nails TV ads slamming Trump; and Republican Voters Against Trump, headed by conservative columnist Bill Kristol.

Kristol and John Weaver of the Lincoln Project, who was a longtime political adviser to the late Sen. John McCain and the chief strategist of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's failed 2016 presidential campaign, saw an opportunity in Ohio when polling began rolling in showing the presidential contest here in a dead heat.

Operation Grant is named after Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president and the general who came through for President Lincoln and brought the Confederates' Army of Northern Virginia to its knees in the Civil War. Grant, of course, grew up in Georgetown, Ohio, not far away from Cincinnati in Brown County.

Of course, Kristol and Weaver needed well-known Republican figures to represent Operation Grant on the ground.

In Southwest Ohio, they turned to former Hamilton County commissioner Phil Heimlich, who has become increasingly critical of his political party in recent years.

"We're trying to reach out to individual Republicans around the state who have had enough of the Trump presidency," said Heimlich, who lives in Symmes Township. "Our message to them is simple: It's OK to change your mind."

Heimlich, who says he will vote for Biden this fall and urges other Republicans to follow suit, said the idea behind Operation Grant is that "country comes before political party."

Heimlich has been off the reservation with the Republican Party establishment for most of the time since 2006, when he lost his county commission seat to Democrat David Pepper, who is now chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

His Hard Truths with Phil Heimlich has butted heads with Republican orthodoxy often over the years, to the point where he is used to his former friends in the GOP calling him a "RINO" – Republican In Name Only.

"One of the false premises of this campaign is that this is a contest between liberals and conservatives,'' Heimlich said. "They say that I am a RINO. Look at Donald Trump – he is the real RINO."

What conservative, Heimlich asks, would do what Trump has done?

"He has, as John McCain put it, 'debased himself before a tyrant' by his refusal to stand up to Vladimir Putin,'' Heimlich said. "He's run up a $2.7 trillion budget deficit. He has shown gross incompetence handling the COVID-19 pandemic. He has turned his back and refused to go after war criminals. He undermines the rule of law nearly every day. What kind of conservative is this?"

He is just as tough on Republican members of Congress, accusing them of "cowardly behavior" and being enablers for Trump's worst instincts and actions.

Operation Grant has already spent money on a Lincoln Project video ad attacking Trump – one that was edited to fit an Ohio audience.

Through mailings, Operation Grant is reaching out to Republicans to try to convince them to join the cause. A website, operationgrant.org, is recruiting Republicans to speak out in their communities, write op-ed pieces for their local newspaper and donate time and money to the cause.

"Even if we can get a small percentage of Republicans in Ohio to reject Trump and vote for Biden it could make the difference in a very close race,'' Heimlich said.

That is true.

Heimlich and Operation Grant are probably never going to get through to the MAGA hat crowd; they are the True Believers and anyone who challenges their belief in Trump is immediately turned off. It's like talking to a brick wall.

An op-ed piece written recently by Weaver and Kristol on Cleveland.com suggests that they know this full well and plan to concentrate on the suburban Republicans who live outside Ohio's "Three C's" – Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Those are the people who might be convinced that 2016 was a serious mistake.

According to the polling so far in Ohio, that's particularly true for women voters in the suburbs, many of whom are Republicans or Republican-leaners and voted for Trump four years ago. Clearly, many of them have seen quite enough of Donald Trump.

In the end, though, it will be up to the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party to win back Ohio by turning out every single voter they have and putting the divisions of the past behind them. That's how Biden wins Ohio's 18 electoral votes.

But having a little help from repentant Republicans couldn't hurt.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU