Open Ohio Senate seat fueling wild GOP primary in key 2022 race

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The battle for an open 2022 Senate seat in Ohio has turned into a struggle among the Republican candidates over who can be the most aggressive culture warrior.

In January, Republican Sen. Rob Portman announced he would be retiring rather than seeking election next year. That has set off a multicandidate frenzy to replace him on the ticket in the increasingly red state.

With the exception of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s reelection in 2018, Republicans have been consistently winning major races in Ohio, which voted twice for former President Donald Trump. Because of that, combined with the traditional midterm backlash against the party in the White House, nonpartisan analysts such as the Cook Political Report see the GOP as having an early edge in the Senate contest.

Josh Mandel stands at a podium as he speaks to supporters at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012.
Josh Mandel in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

Although there hasn’t been much polling for May’s GOP primary, former State Treasurer Josh Mandel appears to be the early leader for the nomination. An Iraq War vet, Mandel also ran for Senate in 2012 and 2018, losing the general election to Brown the first time and dropping out before the primary the second time.

This time Mandel is tying himself closely to Trump, including supporting the former president’s baseless and conspiratorial claims about the 2020 election results.

“I believe the election was stolen from Donald J. Trump,” Mandel said at an Oct. 25 debate.

Mandel has spent the year seemingly attempting to gin up as many controversies as possible. In March, he was briefly banned from Twitter for what the social media company called “hateful conduct” due to comments he made about immigrants. In April, he was escorted out of a Republican National Committee donor retreat after trying to crash it.

In June, the Columbus Dispatch reported that staffers were quitting his campaign due to a “toxic work environment” allegedly created by the campaign’s finance director, whom Mandel was dating. In August, he outed a restaurant server for coming to work sick amid the pandemic, drawing blowback from the brewery he was trying to promote. In September, Mandel, who is Jewish, was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for comments comparing vaccine mandates to Nazi-era Germany. In October, he was escorted out of a Cincinnati-area school board meeting after making comments described as transphobic and anti-mask.

Pundit and venture capitalist J.D. Vance is among those attempting to outdo Mandel. The author of the bestselling “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir of his hardscrabble upbringing that became a sensation in 2016 and was later turned into a movie starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, Vance has returned to the Buckeye State after attending Yale Law School and working in Silicon Valley.

J.D. Vance stands before a microphone as he speaks at a rally in Middletown, Ohio.
J.D. Vance at a rally in Middletown, Ohio, in July. (Jeff Dean/AP)

Vance has the backing of billionaire investor Peter Thiel, who has donated millions to support his bid. A Marine vet and erstwhile critic of Trump, Vance has taken swings at a wide array of targets — New York City, Alec Baldwin, family leave policy, Democrats without children — in an attempt to shore up his conservative bona fides.

“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,” Vance told Time magazine of Trump this summer.

Among the other candidates vying for the Republican nomination is former state party chair Jane Timken, who was reportedly close to earning an early Trump endorsement before the former president was talked out of it by advisers. Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons has donated millions to his own campaign, while luxury car dealership owner Bernie Moreno, a Colombian immigrant and GOP donor, is running on an anti-socialism message and has found fundraising success.

Mark Pukita, a businessman and long-shot candidate, earned loud applause at an event last month by saying he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. Pukita’s campaign also released an ad criticizing Mandel for promoting Christian values and holding a number of events in churches even though he is Jewish.

“In terms of antisemitism, all I did in an ad was pointed out that Josh is going around saying he’s got the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. But he’s Jewish,” Pukita said at a candidate forum last week. “Everybody should know that, though, right?”

Moreno quickly criticized Pukita’s remarks at the event, which was skipped by Timken and Vance. “Josh, nobody should question your faith. That’s not right,” Moreno said. “The Jewish religion, the Bible is the Bible. That was hard to hear. I’m sorry about that. That’s not right. We’re better than that, guys.”

A poll released last month by a pro-Vance super-PAC showed a tight race with 43 percent of respondents undecided. Previous surveys had shown Mandel with wider leads.

The Democratic primary has had fewer fireworks. The current frontrunner is Tim Ryan, the U.S. congressman who’s represented northeast Ohio and the Youngstown area since 2003.

Jane Timken points as she speaks at the Hamilton County Board of Elections during early voting in Norwood, Ohio, in October 2020.
Jane Timken during early voting in Norwood, Ohio, in October 2020. (Aaron Doster/AP)

Following the Democratic defeat in the 2016 presidential election, he unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for the party’s top congressional leadership position. Ryan briefly entered the 2020 presidential race and positioned himself as a Rust Belt moderate who could regain the trust of working-class white voters, but he failed to gain any traction in the crowded field.

Running to Ryan’s left is Morgan Harper, a Columbus Democrat who mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against Rep. Joyce Beatty last year. Harper, a 38-year-old Black woman and native Ohioan, is a lawyer who worked as a senior staffer at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Harper has challenged Ryan to six debates, but his campaign declined, saying it was focused on “building our grassroots campaign, gathering signatures to get on the ballot and listening to voters in every corner of Ohio right now” but would consider debates next year.

“The Republicans are out there, they are dominating, and we can’t just wait and hope for the best, come spring 2022,” Harper said earlier this month. “We need to be moving furiously to get in front of people, to share what our vision is and why they should be voting for us.”

Ryan had a significant $5 million fundraising advantage over Harper as of the end of September but entered the race five months earlier and transferred money from his congressional campaign. Ryan has also earned the endorsement of Brown, the state’s other U.S. senator.

“I know Tim, and I know whose side he’s on,” Brown said in October. “He’s not in this for himself or for corporate special interests — he has dedicated his life to fighting for Ohioans, and their jobs and their wages and their communities.”

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