Days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, announced he would retire rather than seek a third term, despite winning his previous race by 20 points and being credited with helping former President Donald Trump secure a victory in the state. Portman, who backed Trump's policies but was not an entirely avid supporter, blamed "partisan gridlock" for his decision. But amid a slew of retirements by other moderate Republicans, it certainly appears Portman saw the writing on the wall as his party went all-in on Trump.
"He would have had a problem," Gary Abernathy, a longtime Ohio journalist who previously worked for Portman, said in an interview with Salon, describing the "tightrope" Portman walked for years to keep Trump's people happy while "being true to himself." Although Portman won his last Republican primary with more than 80% of the vote, many of the state's Republican voters "don't feel like he had Trump's back as much as he could have," Abernathy said, "even though when it came down to it … he pretty much always voted with Trump."
Ohio strongly backed Trump in both 2016 and 2020, although Barack Obama had won the state twice before that. As the Buckeye State seemingly skews to the right, the increasingly old and white Ohio GOP appears to have adopted a litmus test for candidates — one that Portman might not have passed.
"They want someone who's out there giving a full-throated defense of Donald Trump all the time," Abernathy said.
That's exactly what the Ohio Republican Senate primary campaign has to offer so far, for better or worse. The race quickly devolved into intra-party attacks as candidates snipe at each other over who stans Trump the hardest and which opponent committed the unforgivable sin of once not supporting the former president enough. Former state party chair Jane Timken, a major Trump donor, recently circulated a "scorecard" touting her record of backing Trump as the best in the field. Former state treasurer and perennial also-ran Josh Mandel has tried to adopt Trump's abrasive style and racist tweets, to an almost comical degree. Both Mandel and Timken, along with Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno, the other big Trump donors in the race, flew down to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in March to try to earn the ex-president's backing in what the Associated Press described as a "bizarre scene reminiscent of Trump's reality TV show, 'The Apprentice.'"
The 2022 GOP Senate campaign is already unlike any recent Ohio primary, said Doug Preisse, chair emeritus of the Franklin County Republican Party, who previously worked for Mandel as a strategist.
"The fact that everybody's falling over themselves and rushing to kiss the ring of a former president when it appears to most of the public that they're kissing another part of his anatomy, that's a more intense kind of approach," Preisse told Salon. All the candidates have been "afraid of their own shadow that they might do or say something" that will anger Trump and "drive him to endorse one of the others," he added.
Perhaps no one has a steeper hill to climb in winning over Trump's base than J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and best-selling author of "Hillbilly Elegy," who recently made a separate trip to Mar-a-Lago with billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel to meet with the former president and, presumably, seek to make amends for his extensive past criticism.
According to Preisse, Vance originally indicated he planned to stay out of the Ohio Senate race. "The last time I talked to J.D. was at a cocktail party in Aspen a couple years ago," Preisse recalled. "He said he couldn't run in this kind of atmosphere because of Trump. It was a toxic atmosphere and he could never do that and wouldn't do it."
Vance wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2016 calling Trump "unfit" to be president. Elsewhere he described the appeal of Trump as "cultural heroin" and warned that his policy proposals "range from immoral to absurd."
"I can't stomach Trump," he told NPR in 2016 before announcing his support for independent never-Trump conservative Evan McMullin in the general election. "I think that he's noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place."
But Vance, who has built his image on his rural Appalachian roots while making a fortune investing in the same tech companies he now decries, changed his tune after getting more than $10 million in financial backing from Thiel and Trump mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer to fund his Senate bid.
The Yale Law School grad, who has now joined the Republican chorus in criticizing "elites," scrubbed his old tweets calling Trump "reprehensible" and touting his McMullin support before appearing on Fox News to apologize.
"Like a lot of people, I criticized Trump back in 2016," Vance said. "And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I've been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy. I think he was a good president, I think he made a lot of good decisions for people, and I think he took a lot of flak."
Vance appears to hope his open contrition can convince Ohio voters that he genuinely supports Trump. "I'm not just a flip-flopper, I'm a flip-flop-flipper on Trump," he insisted to Time's Molly Ball, describing Trump as "the leader of this movement."
"If I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him," he said.
"If they see you as a flip-flopper or a political opportunist" who says "whatever you got to say to get to where you want to go, they can smell that," Preisse said.
"That really kind of rips a hole in the 'I'm the authentic candidate' narrative," Abernathy said. "You're saying that out loud, right? People are reading that."
Abernathy, who supported Trump until after the election, said it was "disappointing" to see Vance "blatantly change that position and pander to the Trump people and to Trump himself." He predicted that Vance's GOP opponents would seize on those comments in attack ads.
Indeed, it didn't take long. "Not only do we welcome to the race, we welcome him to the Republican Party," the Gibbons campaign said in a statement after Vance announced his bid.
"He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he's spent the bulk of it tearing down President Trump and mocking Trump voters," said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, which has endorsed Mandel.
Vance has tried to overcome his past Trump criticism by adopting Trump's style and talking points. In recent months, he has railed on Twitter about Big Tech, the media and the supposed cancellation of Dr. Seuss, and has promoted a QAnon-inspired conspiracy theory suggesting that unrelated sexual misconduct cases were evidence of a powerful cabal of "predators targeting children." He has frequently appeared on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show and has echoed, in slightly milder form, Carlson's racist "great replacement" theory by raising concerns about white and nonwhite birthrates. In a recent interview, Vance appeared to nod to Trump's bogus election fraud narrative, saying that Vice President Kamala Harris had been "elected or whatever."
Vance's allies also believe that he is a "household name and a well-known brand," Preisse said. "I don't think that is the case. Books and movies made Stephen King a household name," he said, suggesting that Vance is nowhere near that category.
On the other hand, it's likely that the Thiel and Mercer millions can go a long way in helping Vance make up ground on Timken and Mandel. "That's why you raise money — so you can run a real campaign and do messaging," Preisse said. "Sometimes you gotta try to put the shit back in the horse, which is what he's probably going to have to spend some money doing."
Vance's allies have pointed out that Timken and Mandel may be big Trump fans now, but both of them supported other Republicans in the 2016 presidential primary first. Trump appears to have forgiven Timken and had to be talked out of giving her an early endorsment, according to Axios, while Mandel was kicked out of a recent Republican National Committee retreat in Florida that featured Trump.
No one has tried harder to embrace Trumpism than Mandel, who is running for Senate for the third time in the last decade. Mandel's Twitter bio claims that he was the "1st Statewide Official in Ohio to support President Trump" and he announced his campaign earlier this year by declaring that he was "going to Washington to fight for President Trump's America First Agenda."
Mandel's Twitter feed resembles a Trump fan page, replete with tweets decrying "science" and "experts" while trying (arguably a little too hard) to own the "libs." He's pinned a tweet to the top of his feed that features a video of himself burning a mask with the caption "FREEDOM." In true Trump fashion, he was temporarily suspended by Twitter after posting a poll asking which types of "illegals" would commit more crimes, "Muslim Terrorists" or "Mexican Gangbangers."
After his account access was restored, Mandel proudly declared, "Just like President Trump, I was canceled by @twitter @jack yesterday," adding that he wears "this as a badge of honor as Big Tech thugs & elites target those who they are most afraid of."
Mandel "has left a lot of his old friends and supporters scratching their heads," Preisse said, "and just wondering what the next thing he's gonna do or say that seems to be out of character of the fella we thought we knew for many years."
"I've known Josh since he was in college and I don't even know who the hell that guy is anymore," said another veteran Republican strategist, who spoke to Salon on the condition of anonymity.
It isn't just Mandel's embrace of Trump. The Cleveland-area native also appears to have bizarrely adopted a Southern drawl as he attempts to win over rural voters in southern Ohio, although to be fair, he came under fire for the same fake accent in his first Senate bid in 2012.
Mandel's previous failed campaigns have left him with strong name recognition in the state and millions in leftover campaign cash, but his "incessant campaigning over the past decade has worn some donors out," according to The Atlantic's Clare Malone, and his top fundraisers quit last month, reportedly over a "toxic work environment" created by Rachel Wilson, his campaign finance director and girlfriend.
At times, both Mandel and Timken's camps have tried to make it seem as if they've already landed the coveted Trump endorsement. The USA Freedom Fund, a dark money group backing Mandel, used footage of Trump "even though Mandel was nowhere in sight" while attacking Vance for his past criticism, according to the AP.
Timken recently said in a radio ad that she was "very proud to be endorsed by President Trump to lead our party," which was a reference to her campaign for state party chair four years ago. She recently deleted a photo of hersel and Trump from her website's endorsement page after angering his allies with the insinuation that he is supporting her. Timken rented a plane to fly a pro-Trump banner bearing her website before his Ohio rally last month and deployed volunteers to hand out fliers touting her as "the only true pro-Trump America First candidate" in the race. "Certainly the Timken campaign was working very hard to make it seem like she was also endorsed at this rally," a source told NBC News.
While other candidates are still vying for Trump's endorsement, Timken was widely expected to have it by now. She has bragged that she turned the Ohio Republican Party into a "well-oiled, pro-Trump machine," and she and her husband, steel company CEO Tim Timken, have donated millions to Republican causes. She has already garnered endorsements from dozens of county GOP chairmen and elected officials.
So the fact that no endorsement has happened is unquestionably a blow to Timken's chances, Preisse said. "We all expected her to get an early Trump endorsement and when she didn't, it was almost one step forward, two steps back," he said. "She is suffering more from a lack of endorsement than the others, because it was assumed she'd get it."
Timken has also come under attack from her opponents, not for failing to be supportive enough of the former president but for failing to be tough enough on his perceived enemies. Trump used much of his rally to attack Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican who voted to impeach him after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The state's Republicans piled on, with Mandel calling Gonzalez a "traitor" who should be "eradicated from the Republican Party." The state GOP officially censured Gonzalez in May, calling for him to resign.
Timken also called for Gonzalez to resign from Congress over his disloyalty, but only after she first defended him as a "very effective legislator" and a "very good person" in February after his impeachment vote.
"Question: Why did Jane Timken refuse to censure Gonzalez when she was Chairman? She clearly had time to do so," Mandel questioned in May. "So what's the real reason?"
At Trump's Ohio rally, the ex-president endorsed Max Miller, a 32-year-old former White House aide with multiple criminal charges on his record, in next year's primary against Gonzalez. But he didn't pick a horse in the Senate race, instead staging an impromptu poll of the audience on who they thought he should back.
Though all the candidates have tripped over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the former president, Vance told NBC News he believes that Trump "gets a certain kick out of people kissing his ass" and views them as "weak."
"He actually wants to see the race play out a little bit and see who among us is the strongest of the candidates," he said, while trying to spin his past criticism of Trump as an asset rather than a weakness.
Abernathy suggested that it was more likely that Trump doesn't want to endorse "somebody who ends up losing" because that would make him "look not particularly powerful."
Furthermore, Abernathy said that even though Trump is still the "800-pound gorilla in the room," his support in the state is "slowly eroding." All these candidates' full-throated embrace of Trumpism could come back to bite them in the general election, he said, where "they're going to want to walk that back quite a bit and it's gonna be hard."
Rep. Tim Ryan, who briefly ran for president in 2020 — and before that opposed Nancy Pelosi for the speakership — is the only Democrat to jump into the race so far. But the party claims to believe the Trumpist scrum on the other side will only serve to alienate voters.
"While the GOP's pack of elitist millionaires stumble all over themselves in a desperate attempt to get the attention of a failed Florida blogger, Democrats in Ohio are laser focused on getting the endorsement of Ohio voters — the endorsement that matters most," Matt Keyes, a spokesperson for the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a statement to Salon. "While Republicans want to look backward to the divisions of the past, Ohio Democrats are looking ahead to building a better future for working Ohioans."
There's also no guarantee that whoever does the most to win over Trump's base will win the Republican primary as all the candidates vying for the "Trump lane" cannibalize each other's support.
The anonymous Republican strategist, who has worked for numerous prominent state and federal lawmakers, said he was in contact with some of the campaigns but chose to sit out the race "because I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning."
Abernathy and Preisse, unprompted, separately brought up Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a potential Senate candidate who represents the Dayton area, as a less Trumpy Republican who could turn the race on its head if he joins the fray, especially since most of the other candidates have little experience with legislation.
"He's been kind of an independent-minded person when it comes to Trump, but when the chips are down he's usually been there for Trump," Abernathy said. "He's a very smart person, very well-spoken, I think a good debater, a former mayor of Dayton who has managed to appeal to the Democrats, which is helpful in the general."
Preisse also mentioned state Sen. Matt Dolan, the state budget committee chairman, whose family owns the Cleveland Indians, describing him as a "center-right conservative ... who knows how to get things done."
"If Turner or Dolan gets in, there will be a lot of people who breathe a sigh of relief that there's an adult in the race who isn't rushing to kiss Donald Trump's ring," Preisse said, before repeating, "or some other part of his anatomy."