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Opinion The Ohio Republican Party is in absolute chaos

Mike Gibbons, left, and Josh Mandel exchange heated arguments at a FreedomWorks forum for Ohio's Republican Senate candidates on March 18 in Columbus, Ohio. (Andrew Spear/Getty Images)
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Republican candidates in a Senate primary are competing with World Wrestling Entertainment for most outrageous behavior. An incumbent Republican governor faces a rebellion and primary opposition from within his ranks. A Republican-led redistricting process is repeatedly shot down by the Republican chief justice of the state supreme court — leading to impeachment threats from GOP lawmakers and the likely rescheduling of the primary. And the pending trial of the former Republican state House speaker on racketeering charges is being called the biggest corruption scandal in state history.

No, that’s not a news roundup from across the country. That’s a quick summary of the current political landscape in Ohio.

Gaining the most national scrutiny is the competition to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R). The presence in the field of “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance drew early attention to the race. Vance’s book offered a nuanced look at the cultural and economic forces in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, so there were expectations that its author, as a candidate, might exhibit similar wisdom. Instead, Vance — after regularly dissing Donald Trump — shockingly turned himself into a Trump sycophant, competing with Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer, to say the most ridiculously Trumpian things.

Lately overtaking both Mandel and Vance is wealthy businessman Mike Gibbons, another “Can you Trump this?” candidate who — fittingly, in today’s professional wrestling atmosphere — went nose-to-nose with Mandel at a recent debate. Looking on with other candidates was former state GOP chair Jane Timken, who has Portman’s support and probably the right measure of Trumpiness without the wide-eyed zealot factor to win in November. Timken’s ads feature Trump saying nice things about her at past rallies, but Trump has not yet endorsed anyone. Also present was Matt Dolan, a Republican state senator with deep pockets, who has distanced himself from former president Trump and, by extension, from Trump voters. Both Timken and Dolan trail in the polls. (Rounding out the crowded field are Neil Patel, Mark Pukita and Bill Graham.)

Watching from the wings as the craziness unfolds is the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, who faces Morgan Harper, Traci Johnson and LaShondra Tinsley in the primary.

Frequently lost in the noise of the Senate race is the reelection bid of Gov. Mike DeWine (R). DeWine earned the ire of many conservatives over his handling of the coronavirus when it first emerged in 2020. He seemed determined that no governor would outdo him in implementing lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictions.

The measures made DeWine a national media darling, but local pushback and protests led to the resignation of his health director and calls to challenge him in the primary. His most formidable opponent on paper, former congressman James B. Renacci, has touted himself as a pro-Trump conservative while painting DeWine as soft on illegal immigration, a supporter of higher gas taxes and someone who doesn’t stand with Trump.

To shore up his flank, DeWine has romanced the right more aggressively. He criticized President Biden’s vaccine mandate, and recently signed a bill no longer requiring a license to carry a concealed handgun, along with a “born alive” bill favored by his pro-life constituency. DeWine was recently endorsed by the state Republican party, but not without significant opposition, and at least two county parties have broken ranks to endorse Renacci.

But DeWine still maintains a healthy polling and cash advantage over his GOP challengers. Aside from Renacci, his opponents include former state representative Ron Hood and farmer Joe Blystone, whose aggressive grass-roots campaign has placed him second in the polls. If anti-DeWine Republicans fail to coalesce around one candidate, DeWine can win with just a plurality. Whoever emerges will face a former Democratic mayor, either Nan Whaley of Dayton or John Cranley of Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the process of drawing new state legislative and congressional districts has provided even more drama. Voters previously approved new, supposedly less partisan state and congressional redistricting standards, but Republicans still control the map-drawing committees. Three Republicans on the seven-member state supreme court have routinely approved the maps, but Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — also a Republican — has consistently joined the court’s three Democrats to reject them. That has angered Republicans legislators, some of whom are reportedly considering impeachment proceedings against O’Connor.

The delayed maps will almost assuredly force the primary — scheduled for May 3 — to be postponed, causing more headaches for election officials and upending campaigns that meticulously tailor spending and messaging around a specific end date.

If not for all those distractions, what might be top of mind for Republicans are racketeering charges pending against former Ohio House speaker Larry Householder (R) related to an alleged $61 million bribery and money-laundering arrangement. Householder has denied the charges. The fallout could embarrass a lot of Republicans. But that trial won’t start until January. For Ohio Republicans facing more immediate challenges, that’s a lifetime away — with many more soap operas in between.