The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anthony Gonzalez wants voters to focus on everything but his impeachment vote. Trump is trying to make sure they never forget.

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wellington, Ohio, on June 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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CLEVELAND — Susan Waters decided several years ago that she would take her political cues from Donald Trump.

That’s why the 68-year-old retiree from nearby Westlake was “utterly dismayed” earlier this year when her congressman, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), voted to impeach Trump. But it wasn’t an issue that had been at the top of her mind in recent months until she attended the Trump rally in Wellington on Saturday night, where the former president urged the crowd to support Gonzalez’s primary opponent Max Miller.

“He doesn’t represent us if he doesn’t defend Trump from all these spun-up and illegitimate liberal attacks,” she said of Gonzalez the day after the rally as she moved between stores in Crocker Park shopping plaza. “He said to vote for Miller and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I follow my president.”

Republicans like Waters are the problem for Gonzalez as the onetime rising star in the party fights for his political survival in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District. He has been trying to get his constituents to focus on everything about his record but that vote, while Trump is promising to make sure they never forget it.

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In the days following Trump’s recent rally, interviews with dozens of voters and local officials showed the event accomplished that mission, at least for the short term.

Several voters said they weren’t familiar with who was challenging Gonzalez in the primary before Trump’s arrival. The officials said it had unmistakably shifted the focus of the race back onto Gonzalez’s decision to join nine fellow Republicans and all House Democrats in voting to impeach Trump on charges that his false claims about the 2020 election incited the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

To close observers of the district, that’s not a good place to be if Gonzalez wants to keep his job.

“Anthony Gonzalez made a grotesque mistake very early in his second term and if you’re gonna screw up, screw up early because it gives people months to forget about it,” said Doug Deeken, who chairs the Wayne County Republican Party and said he is staying neutral in the primary. “But Donald Trump has made it very clear he will personally come and remind people and that’s absolutely huge because they’ll remember, ‘Oh yeah, that did happen. Oh yeah, I was really mad about that.’ ”

Miller, who grew up in northeast Ohio’s Shaker Heights, is making his campaign all about his allegiance to Trump. He worked on Trump’s campaign and in his White House. Trump has lavished Miller with praise and called him a true Ohioan as he faces accusations of conveniently moving back to the district to run for office. Some of his past troubles have been highlighted during the campaign, including being charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in 2007 after punching another man in the back of the head and running away from police.

“There is no greater fighter that this country has ever had, and I have never had a greater role model than President Donald J. Trump, period. Bar none,” Miller told the crowd at Trump’s rally. “I need all of your help to get RINO turncoat Tony out of office.”

James B. Renacci, who represented the district before Gonzalez and has mounted a primary challenge to Gov. Mike DeWine (R), said the race will come down to which candidate is successful at getting voters to focus on what they want.

“They’re not going to forget it. It doesn’t mean he still can’t win, but he’s really got to tell people why he should still be there,” he said of Gonzalez. “As I’ve said to him, he needs to remind people of what he’s done other than that and Max Miller needs to remind people of what Gonzalez did and that will be the difference.”

A rising star

For the most part, Gonzalez has followed that advice. Unlike some impeachment Republicans who have made their vote a defining issue, such as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) or Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), Gonzalez has largely decided to keep his head down and focus on legislating and his conservative record.

He says he does not regret the vote and will occasionally defend himself against Trump’s attacks.

“He was doing the same thing that he does every time he’s mad at somebody,” he told after the rally. “He makes up a bunch of stuff, calls them mean names. It’s the same tired routine that he always uses. I don’t, frankly, give it any thought.”

Aides familiar with the congressman’s approach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe his views, said Gonzalez sees his role as being outspoken when it comes to the dangers Trump poses to the country while not allowing it to define or distract from his priorities on Capitol Hill. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Gonzalez is among a group of Republicans in state and federal elections whom Trump is vowing to defeat because they voted to impeach him or did not follow his orders to override election results based on his false claims of widespread voter fraud. Their fate will help determine the Republican Party’s immediate future and whether there is a place for anyone who challenges Trump even on issues central to democracy.

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When Gonzalez first ran for Congress, he was viewed by party leaders as a rising star. He was a standout football player at Ohio State University who was then drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and worked as a receiver on teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.

When injuries cut his career short, he headed to Stanford University to get an MBA and then worked at a start-up called Chalk Schools. His Cuban American heritage was attractive to the GOP at a time when it was trying to become more diverse and combat accusations that the party was promoting racist and anti-immigrant policies under Trump.

In many ways, Gonzalez was a throwback to the type of candidate Republicans wanted as the face of the party in the years before Trump become president, with the type of business-focused, conservative views that fit in the party of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney.

He even dispatched a primary challenger in 2018 who centered her campaign on loyalty to Trump.

This background has created an interesting subplot in his primary contest. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who has mostly been obsequious to Trump, is backing Gonzalez in the primary, which is scheduled for early May, even if he is not heavily promoting that position.

The leadership PAC controlled by McCarthy — Majority Committee PAC — donated $10,000 to Gonzalez in the first quarter. When asked this past week whether he supports the Ohio congressman as he walked to the House floor, McCarthy belted out a resounding “Yes!”

Other members of House GOP leadership have been more cautious.

“Anthony is working on reelection. He’s done a really good job as a member trying to get things done,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said while ignoring questions about whether he endorses Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has kept close ties with the other nine Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. He defended Cheney when GOP leaders moved to strip the Wyoming Republican of her leadership post and replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.).

“If a prerequisite for leading our conference is continuing to lie to our voters, then Liz is not the best fit. Liz isn’t going to lie to people,” he told the Hill newspaper in May.

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Gonzalez also recently formed a joint fundraising committee with Cheney in an effort to push back against the expected deluge of donations Miller will receive after getting Trump’s support.

Fellow Republicans in the Ohio delegation declined to weigh in on the primary. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who spoke at the Wellington rally, said he had not given an endorsement in the race, unlike the election in 2018, when he backed Christina Hagan over Gonzalez because of her strong “Make America Great Again” appeal.

“That’s not a concern of ours anyway,” Jordan said when asked how the delegation feels about Gonzalez’s impeachment vote. “That’s up to the voters in whatever the district happens to turn out to be when they redraw.”

Jordan’s comments nodded at another big unknown for Gonzalez’s future — what the district will look like after the state’s congressional map is redrawn as part of the decennial redistricting process.

Ohio is set to lose a congressional district following the 2020 Census. The data needed to begin redrawing the map won’t be available until mid-August. The governor’s redistricting commission will then have about a month to present a map, leaving local and national officials to guess at whether the 16th District will be folded into more conservative districts surrounding it or remain somewhat close to what is today. The map may not be finalized until the end of the year if there are challenges to the proposal.

Regardless of what the map looks like, Gonzalez’s impeachment vote will remain a chief challenge for him.

'A very popular congressman'

Before his vote to impeach Trump put his political career in peril, Gonzalez was a good fit for Ohio’s 16th District, which has become reliably Republican over the past decade.

Local Republicans said the district that spans as far north as the Cleveland suburbs and down to largely rural Wooster has had a preference for non-attention-seeking Republicans in an area where most voters don’t like to broadcast their political leanings. But it was also quick to embrace Trump, who beat Biden here 56.4 percent to 42.2 percent and Hillary Clinton by a similar margin in 2016.

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Deeken, the Wayne County Republican Party chair, said that Gonzalez was well liked and respected for championing conservative policies like cutting taxes, fighting against government regulations and supporting Second Amendment rights.

“He has been quite good for us and understands our values and represents them well,” he said. “But the vote on impeachment, I mean, that was a self-inflicted injury, and it very well could be a career ender self-inflicted injury.”

Other local officials told a similar tale of a rising star who could be brought back to earth by Trump.

“He was a very popular congressman,” said Shannon Burns, president of the conservative group Strongsville GOP, who is supporting Miller. “Frankly, he was on the path to leadership, prevalent fundraiser, well spoken, well liked within his district, a solid R district that has become that because of President Trump’s influence on the state of Ohio. So, you know, he was poised to make that move to leadership and he threw it all away because of his hatred for President Trump.”

Near the wealthy and suburban Rocky River, where Gonzalez and Miller now live, Republicans shopping earlier this week for vegetables at Kamm’s Corner Fresh Market or at outdoor commercial plazas represent some of the voters Gonzalez and Miller hope to win over.

Locals described the area, which borders a strong Democratic district represented by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) for decades, as a place for “quiet Trump supporters,” ones who often don’t proclaim their allegiance in fear of being judged by neighbors or colleagues.

In this area, Gonzalez can rely on a Republican like Mitchell Zimms, a 34-year-old salesman who heard that Trump had visited. He commended Gonzalez for doing what he thought was right and said he would vote for the congressman. Zimms added he would vote for Trump if he were on the ballot in 2024 because he pushed conservative values.

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Farther down Interstate 71 in communities like Strongsville, Trump’s supporters are numerous and more vocal.

Rodney Ricketts, a Strongsville native who described himself as lifelong Republican, said he was drawn to Gonzalez when the then-33-year-old launched his first campaign for Congress in 2018 because he reminded him of his “favorite president.”

“He was an outsider who never worked in politics, a businessman, conservative, and well known around here playing for Ohio State. Who doesn’t love a football star?” he said while waiting for his wife outside of Macy’s at the SouthPark Mall over the weekend. “But he’s nothing like Trump. He’s weak, he betrayed him, he betrayed us with that stupid vote. I’m going to vote for the other guy he told us to support.”