Ohio’s Senate Primary Encapsulates the Republican Party

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As the Republican Senate Candidates clashed in another debate, this was among the biggest hits of conservative fantasy. What are the topics of discussion? Huge urban ballot-harvesting operation. Time for Dr. Anthony Fauci to go to jail Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene & Madison Cawthorn defend themselves. Hunter Biden’s laptop and Joe Biden’s family crime syndicate. The total deportation and restoration to power of Donald Trump in this country of illegal immigrants.

The perfect example of Trump’s influence on the Republican Party identity was displayed in this picture. That fever might be what cost Republicans the chance to win a majority this autumn.

Democrats defend the Senate’s tightest 50-50 coalition. However, Vice President Kamala Harris is able break the tie. Republicans want a map with many options to win the gavel back in 2023. This includes pick-up possibilities in Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Democrats on the other hand, must hold their current seats and offset difficult races with pick up chances in areas like Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. North Carolina. Maybe even Ohio. It’s way too early to responsibly assess odds this far from Election Day, but the declared contenders do offer hints as to each party’s strategy.

Just take Ohio, where the Senate primary has devolved in large part into an attempt for the candidates to present themselves as the best avatar for Trump’s America First rhetoric. Polling to this point has been thin, but it’s a good bet that the closer candidates stand to Trump’s spotlight, the hotter they are politically. From the very first minutes of the debate last night, it seemed like a parody of pandering as the seven candidates looked for a blessing from Trump, who despite aggressive courtship has remained publicly neutral so far ahead of the state’s May 3 primary. With one notable exception, the candidates all seemed to endorse Trump’s belief that the 2020 election was stolen and he remains the rightful President of the United States. (Just look at what happened last week when Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama didn’t heel to Trump’s Big Lie: Brooks, about as Trumpy as they come, saw his endorsement withdrawn.)

With that in the backdrop and the specter of an endorsement in the mix, each contender took turns coddling Trump’s—and many Republicans’—false views of the real result in 2020. Mike Gibbons from Bankers, who enjoyed an unexpected surge in polls due to his spending, claimed that there were 5 million more votes than voters. “The January 6 Commission should be investigating that instead of some false accusations of … insurrection,” Gibbons said.

Not to be outdone, one-time front-runner and three-time Senate candidate Josh Mandel bordered close to screaming when it came time for his fealty test: “For all the RINOs out there and all the media elites out there, the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.”

Former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken,—installed by Trump in 2017—continued with her best effort to balance her MAGA credentials with the support of retiring Sen. Rob Portman is a well-informed Establishment figure, who decided it was time to retire at the conclusion of his term. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there were irregularities and fraud,” said Timken, before noting Ohio broke for Trump by eight percentage points.

And by the time the question made its way to businessman Mark Pukita, who had planned to primary Portman even before he decided to retire, the candidates had all seemed exhausted by the moderator’s fact-checking that none of what they were saying was true. Pukita admitted that the moderator was going to question everything he said at the beginning of his answer.

This is how the Republican Party looked in Ohio, as well as in other states. Republicans’ display ranged from glib—as when candidate J.D. Vance mocked the moderator’s “fact-check wand”—to dangerous, like when rival Neil Patel asserted Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania were illegitimate counts in 2020. This pursuit of Trump’s blessing during the primaries may leave Republicans’ bid for Senate resurgence heading into the fall with less-than-ideal candidates. It’s why, while Democrats are on the defense, they’re not defeated.

Political primaries tend to reward the loudest shades along the spectrum; just look at Trump’s unexpected capture of the Republican nomination in 2016. But sometimes the garish hues render the winners unpalatable for a general election— a risk that often gets far too little strategic discernment from primary voters. The roads to majorities are littered with bad choices, from Republican Christine “I Am Not A Witch” O’Donnell in 2010 to Democrat Chris Janicek’s candidacy a decade later that continued even after a sexting scandal with a campaign staffer. Some wiley operatives game the system to give an advantage to their least threatening rival on the other side, as Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill did in securing the Republican nomination for Todd Akin, who would go on to tank his campaign in 2012 when describing “legitimate rape.”

Washington Republicans worry about this type of strategy mis-pick, which is why they are not only worried for the Senate but all other races. Expected Democratic nominees Tim Ryan to the Senate and Nan Whaley as Governor may be able find a synergy on the Ohio ticket which could solve numerical problems for their party. In the event that incumbent governor is resigned by GOP primaries, Democrats of all levels will benefit from Mike DeWine’s popularity with Democrats and moderates. As you can see, even the best survivors could be left with a bruised face in the Republican primary.

Then there’s the Trump factor, possibly the most potent but unpredictable component in politics right now. Trump is positioning himself to be the GOP kingmaker for 2022. He may even win that title. He’s already proven an effective candidate slayer, forcing scores of candidates to just go home rather than face his torment. But Trump’s wide spray of endorsements has carried a level of risk exposure that leaves Republican insiders worrying.

Trump supported Brooks in Alabama, despite his obvious missteps. He also backed an opponent in Pennsylvania for the Senate who was forced to resign due to abuse allegations. His pick in North Carolina hasn’t really gained the traction needed to win the Senate nod. Trump has backed an Alaskan effort to block Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from another term. A hiccup could occur in Missouri, where Trump may end up backing an ex-Governor who is facing new allegations of abuse as he stands for Senate.

Elsewhere, Trump’s power has actually hurt Republicans’ efforts to draw recruits who would be formidable in a general election. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey both opted to forgo Senate runs because of the dance they’d have to do with Trump; both can be critical of the ex-President, a toxic trait in Republican primaries.

Behind all this, however, is Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell. He’s a sharp tactician and strategist as anyone in the GOP. If Republicans retake the majority after this fall’s elections, it’s widely and credibly expected that he would reclaim the gavels—and the power to check President Joe Biden’s agenda for the balance of his first term.

McConnell has been working for years to curb Trump’s influence on the party. It was initially stealthy, but McConnell ended that trick after Jan. 6. McConnell did not pick up Trump’s calls on Jan. 6, 2020, and the last time they spoke was Dec. 15, 2020. McConnell remained focused on his home. His close advisor Sen. John Thune was persuaded to pursue a fourth term, rather than South Dakota Republicans sending another Trumpist in the Senate. McConnell also tries to keep a steady stream of candidates in place for his closest friends, Sens. Portman, and Sens. Roy Blunt is Richard Shelby. McConnell isn’t just sitting back and bracing for incoming colleagues trying to out-Trump each other in their quest for power.

Here, it’s important to add one crucial caveat. Trump is huge in the Republican Party right now, but he’s not an unchecked autocrat. Let’s return to the stage outside of Dayton last night, where state Sen. Mike Dolan made the lone argument against the Trumpward drift of his Republican Party.

“There are people up on this stage who are literally fighting for one vote. And that person doesn’t even vote in Ohio. That concern for that one vote doesn’t end on Election Day,” said Dolan, a member of one of the wealthiest families in America and a part-owner of the baseball team now known as the Cleveland Guardians.

But when asked if he’d support McConnell’s return as Majority Leader, Dolan dodged. “I don’t know who’s running,” he said. This was an unnecessary flinch by someone who had already spent over $10 million on the race, but is still parked in the excess lot. Trump made it clear that Dolan was not included in his mix to receive a blessing by Mar a Lago. What was his sin? His sin? Which just proves the point: Trump’s power is immense but often mercurial. Personality almost always outperforms strategy. These moves could be the reason Chuck Schumer is still the Majority Leader despite a complicated map.

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