Trump has endorsed Mike Carey, a former coal executive and lobbyist who has never held elected office. Carey used Trump’s backing to raise nearly $500,000, the largest haul among the contenders. He has also been the beneficiary of more than $300,000 in television ads placed by a pro-Trump PAC, according to Columbus advertising firm Medium Buying. If money plus Trump’s backing equaled victory, Carey would be cruising.
He’s not. That’s because he doesn’t have a monopoly on spending and because voters care about things besides what Trump says. Four other candidates have spent significant amounts of money on television ads, and an outside group has spent more than $200,000 attacking Carey. Outside groups have also been spending heavily to back two of Carey’s opponents. State Rep. Jeff LaRe has Stivers’s endorsement, and the former congressman has spent about $300,000 on LaRe’s behalf. Former state Rep. Ron Hood has Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) support, and a PAC allied to Paul has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pushing Hood. Republican voters will know something about a lot of the candidates running, not just Carey.
Carey’s biggest obstacle, however, is something he can’t do anything about: his opponents’ political history. Current or former officeholders build up a reservoirs of support in the areas they represent. Election results consistently show they do much better in those areas in congressional primaries, even if they don’t do well in other parts of the district. Four of Carey’s opponents have represented significant parts of the 15th District in the state legislature, and virtually none of those state seats overlap. Based on turnout data from the 2018 GOP primary, more than 80 percent of the district’s Republicans live in areas represented by one of those four state legislative seats.
That means Carey’s opponents have a built-in advantage, provided they can leverage that regional base with enough spending to reach the other parts of the district. One of those four, state Sen. Stephanie Kunze, has not raised much money, so she is highly unlikely to win. She should still do well in her home county, however, as fellow state Sen. Kevin Bacon did in a neighboring seat in 2018 despite similarly lackluster fundraising. The other three state legislators — LaRe, Hood and state Sen. Bob Peterson — have the money to compete with Carey.
Peterson could be the surprise winner of the race, even though he’s the only serious candidate not to receive national backing. He husbanded his money for the final days and has reserved $145,000 in television time for the last eight days. That matters because outside groups pay much higher rates per ad than candidates do under federal law. He is also the only candidate endorsed by Ohio Right to Life, a significant factor in this pro-life area. He could end up like Rep. Troy Balderson, another former state senator who leveraged his base in Muskingum County with significant television spending to narrowly capture the GOP nomination in 2018.
Trump’s endorsement and more than $2.5 million in television spending hasn’t created any voter enthusiasm. Only 10,537 people voted early, about half the amount who voted early last week’s Texas special election. If that race is a guide, fewer than 10,000 people will vote on Election Day, leading to one of the lowest turnouts for a congressional special election in recent history. That abysmally low turnout should also boost the state legislators, as they are likelier to have built personal ties to the type of party activists who will vote come rain or shine.
Trump’s standing will tumble nationwide if Carey loses. He knows that, which is why his PAC placed $348,000 in last-minute ads and recorded a robocall on Carey’s behalf from Trump. Similar tactics, though, failed in Texas last week, as now-Republican nominee Jake Ellzey supplemented his regional base with more than $1 million in spending to beat Trump’s favorite. Don’t be surprised if Ohio Republicans also send Trump’s man packing.