The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In once mainstream Ohio, moderates struggle against pro-Trump rivals

The rise of aggressive, combative campaigning in a Republican Senate race illustrates a seismic shift in the Buckeye State

People cheer while J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican Senate candidate, and Donald Trump Jr. speak to a crowd ahead of the May 3 primary in West Chester, Ohio. (Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON COURT HOUSE, Ohio — Standing near a tractor draped with the Betsy Ross flag, Jane Timken, a former state GOP party chair, told a small crowd here this week how she was different from the other Republicans running for U.S. Senate.

“They wake up every day and try to get canceled on Twitter,” Timken said during a question-and-answer session. “At the end of the day, I’m a ‘get things done’ kind of person.” Later, in a brief interview, she went further: “Who’s not going to embarrass the state? That’s me.”

But Timken is getting little traction ahead of Ohio’s Senate primary election on Tuesday, even though her views largely match the “America First” agenda staked out by former president Donald Trump and she’s been endorsed by the GOP senator she wants to replace. Instead, the GOP candidates attracting most of the attention in this race to replace the occasional aisle-crossing Sen. Rob Portman are those who echo Trump’s brash style, too.

The latest fight in the race doesn’t even directly center on the candidates, focusing instead on whether Trump was hoodwinked when he endorsed author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, who has enjoyed a sizable bump in the polls after earning the former president’s nod.

“Look, I love Trump, but he’s got it wrong with J.D. Vance,” says a man in a new ad sponsored by the Club for Growth, a conservative group that backs a different candidate. The ad notes that Trump also endorsed former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is now frequently targeted by Trump allies for his willingness to work with Democrats. “How’d that turn out?” a woman in the ad asks.

The Club for Growth released this ad against Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance on April 27. (Video: Club for Growth)

The rise of such aggressive and combative campaigning in Ohio reveals a seismic shift for the GOP in the Buckeye State. The state’s modern Republican senators have tended to be conservatives who worked well with Democrats, including Portman — who voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill — the late George Voinovich and the current governor, Mike DeWine, who lost a 2006 Senate reelection race before mounting a political comeback. DeWine also faces a primary challenge in next week’s election, though the race has not featured the same level of vitriol.

Now the three most bombastic Senate GOP candidates are dominating the race. If voters ultimately send one of them to Washington, they will be replacing a Republican who works with Democrats with one who explicitly labels the opposition as mortal enemies — adding to the polarization that has already contributed to frequent gridlock in Washington.

Hours after the polite but poorly attended Timken event on Monday, roughly 250 people crowded into a rollicking, standing-room-only rally for Vance held just outside Cincinnati. It featured Donald Trump Jr. — and a strong helping of grievance.

The former president’s son went beyond attacking Democrats, targeting “squishy” Republicans in Washington, U.S. military leaders who should have seen the fall of Kabul coming, and Netflix for broadcasting a show about a pregnant man called “He’s Expecting.” Far from expressing concern about social media bans, he embraced them. “Who hasn’t been put in Facebook jail?” Trump Jr. asked.

Vance — who once harshly criticized Trump Jr.’s father as dangerous — stood on the side, laughing and nodding through the routine, which at times had the cadence of a stand-up comedy act. When it was his turn, Vance joked that the audience should “tear down” his opponents’ yard signs, then told them not to because Republicans, unlike Democrats, “suffer consequences” if they break the law.

Earlier in the day, he turned his ire on the media. “I can’t stand these people,” Vance said in reference to the press at a stop in Dayton. “No more talking, no more whining, no more complaining about the decline of this country. I’m going to fight back.”

Others are embracing their own version of a fighter persona. Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer who has led in the polls for much of the race, accused businessman Mike Gibbons of shipping Ohio jobs to China during a candidate forum. The event then devolved into a screaming match onstage as the men stood chest-to-chest and were physically separated as they continued to yell at each other.

Mandel, who is backed by the Club for Growth and will close out the campaign with a rally featuring Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Friday, has staked out far-right positions including replacing public schools with parochial ones. “Shut down government schools and put schools in churches and synagogues,” he posted on social media.

Even Timken has jumped into the fray at times. She calls herself “Trump tough” and had an ad questioning the manhood of Vance, Gibbons, and Mandel for not supporting the ex-president for as long as she had. “We all know guys who overcompensate for their inadequacies,” Timken said in the spot.

Vance was leading in a recent poll by Fox News, with support from 23 percent of primary voters. It’s the first public poll to be released since Trump endorsed Vance and shows a 12-point rise for Vance since a similar survey last month.

Mandel attracted backing from 18 percent and Gibbons had 13 percent, the poll showed. State Sen. Matt Dolan, who is staking out the most moderate position, was at 11 percent and Timken trailed the other major candidates with 6 percent. The margin of error was 3 percent.

But the race remains fluid even in the final days with a full 25 percent of primary voters saying they had not yet made up their minds. Strategists from multiple campaigns expect turnout to be low.

Democrats are eying the morass with delight, believing that despite the head winds their party faces in November’s midterm elections, they might have a better chance if one of the more bombastic candidates advances past the primary.

“They’re more loyal to a radical, extreme ideology than they are to the people of Ohio,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, one of several Democratic candidates, after completing the 87th stop on a tour of the state’s 88 counties — 81 of which voted for Trump in 2020. “They’re more concerned about going to Mar-a-Lago and kissing the ring than they are about the people of Ohio.”

Any of the top contenders in this GOP contest will be further to the right than Portman. All but one of the leading candidates raised doubts about the veracity of the 2020 presidential election. All of them agree there should be limits on female trans athletes competing against other women or girls in sports — an issue that voters repeatedly brought up at GOP events in the state. All support bans on what they characterize as “critical race theory” in public schools.

In a brief interview Monday evening after appearing onstage with Trump, Vance acknowledged there’s been a shift in what voters want. “Now they’re really looking for an outsider,” he said, saying the sentiment has existed for a while but has intensified.

In interviews with two dozen GOP voters in the state, many agreed. Burke Samuels, 45, a plumber who attended a rally Trump held for Vance last weekend, said he wants a candidate without political experience. “I don’t like politicians,” he said. “They all go in with good intentions and end up corrupt.”

Katie Ruschman, 47 of Maineville, Ohio, said that one of her biggest concerns is that the Republican Party “does not stand up for much.” She’s torn between Vance and Mandel. “We need people who know what middle America is about,” she said.

The state’s demographics have shifted to become Whiter and less affluent than the rest of the country. Seventy-eight percent of Ohio’s population is non-Hispanic White, compared with 60 percent of the country, according to data from Brookings Metro and the U.S. Census. Ohio families earned about as much as the rest of the nation until 2004, but that year, the growth in real median household income began lagging further behind the nation.

“When people feel like their lives are unstable and they’re not building towards a new future, then of course they look for scapegoats,” said Lavea Brachman, a visiting fellow at Brookings who studies economic development with a focus on the Midwest. “It’s about the trend lines.”

Republicans running for reelection have touted an economic comeback in Ohio, including two new Intel factories coming to the Columbus region. But fresh opportunities, wealth and growth are mostly concentrated in cities, said Alison D. Goebel, the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center.

“A lot of the signs of prosperity that people are looking for just aren’t there in big, obvious ways, which I think then leads to distrust in institutions,” Goebel said. “There’s been a lot of prosperity and growth in key high-visibility areas across the country. And many smaller towns in Ohio have not experienced that, and they haven’t been experiencing that for decades.”

Another reason for more extreme views, according to Ohio experts, is that decades of gerrymandering have led to more polarization in the state. Democrats are concentrated in cities, which have become more liberal here, and their representatives have become less and less involved with rural issues, Brachman said. The opposite has occurred with the Republican lawmakers, who represent increasingly rural areas.

If the electorate has shifted, so have the GOP candidates, morphing to become more aligned with the Trump agenda.

Gibbons, a wealthy businessman, once warned about the “cult of personality” surrounding Trump and suggested he was to blame for the loss of Georgia’s two Senate seats in 2021. Now Gibbons has hired Bill Stepien, the manager of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

Mandel — whom the president’s son accused this week of failing to sufficiently support his father in 2016 — campaigned last week with Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.

No one in the field shifted more than Vance, who publicly talked about voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and once compared Trump to “another opioid” who represented “easy escape from the pain” that the country was going through. After Trump secured the 2016 nomination, Vance gained fame as liberal circles seized on his memoir of growing up in Ohio, “Hillbilly Elegy,” as a way to understand Trump’s appeal to working-class White voters, including millions of ex-Democrats.

Vance’s view of Trump evolved once he took office. As he built out his U.S. Senate campaign, Vance impressed Trump veterans such as Robert E. Lighthizer, Trump’s U.S. trade representative who renegotiated the NAFTA trade agreement. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who once employed Vance and shares his view of where Trump-style politics should go, donated more than $10 million to a pro-Vance super PAC. It helped keep Vance in contention against candidates with deeper political connections and less history of criticizing Trump — who, in the end, forgave him.

“He’s a guy that said some bad shit about me. He did. He did,” the former president said Saturday at a rally that attracted several thousand people in Delaware, Ohio, about an hour north of Columbus. “But you know what? Every one of the others did also. In fact, if I went by that standard I don’t think I would have ever endorsed anybody in the country.”

There is one GOP candidate who has made no attempt to court Trump: Dolan, the state senator. At a GOP dinner Monday night, he stood below pictures of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln describing a “seminal moment” to a crowd.

It was in one of the U.S. Senate primary debates, when he and every other Republican running was asked whether Trump should move on from the 2020 election. A show of hands: Yes or no? Only Dolan raised his hand for yes.

By not competing for the Trump endorsement, Dolan is betting that ardent pro-Trump candidates will split the vote and that there are enough Republicans in a more traditional mold to give him the win.

In a statement Tuesday, Trump attacked Dolan by name, saying he is “not fit to serve in the United States Senate.” The reason: His family, which owns one of the state’s two baseball teams, bowed to pressure and changed the name from the Indians to the Guardians.

“The team will always remain the Cleveland Indians to me!” Trump said.