In another lifetime, Representative Anthony Gonzalez was the Ohio Republican Party’s dream candidate. Many of his future suburban-Cleveland constituents cheered for him at Byers Field when he was a high-school-football standout at St. Ignatius, and later again at the Shoe in Columbus during his star turn as an Ohio State University wide receiver. The son of a Cuban immigrant, he was a first-round NFL draft pick and went on to graduate from Stanford’s business school. Gonzalez ran for Congress in 2018 at age 33, drawing the support of insiders such as the former TimkenSteel CEO Tim Timken, whose wife, Jane, was then the state’s GOP chair.
But last January, the golden-boy shine was abruptly stripped off. Gonzalez voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, and two weeks later, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2022. The race to replace Portman started soon after, and attacking Gonzalez became a way for candidates to prove their Trump loyalty. One Senate candidate, former State Treasurer Josh Mandel, called him a “traitor” who should be “eradicated from the Republican Party.” Jane Timken, who’d said Gonzalez was “an effective legislator” and “a very good person” in the weeks immediately following his vote, reversed that opinion once she entered the Senate race and stuck her finger out to test the prevailing political winds, which tend to blow south, toward Mar-a-Lago. The pillorying of Gonzalez became a signal to a certain kind of primary voter that all that had thrilled them to Trump—his exuberant contrarianism, his chest-thumping invective—would live on in certain Senate candidates.
Ohio, once a toss-up on the electoral map, is now firmly Republican; Trump won the state by eight points in 2016 and in 2020. Still, it’s not accustomed to the kind of medical-grade Trumpism that, say, Governor Ron DeSantis serves up in Florida—at least not yet. Republican Governor Mike DeWine was an early, steady, science-led voice during the country’s initial COVID-19 response, and although Trump won Ohio with 53 percent of the vote in 2020, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown kept his seat with the same percentage of the vote in 2018. Whether Ohio Republican voters want the party’s new Trump ideology to be in-your-face loud or laundered through the bland language and bad suits of Styrofoam-cup coffee klatches remains to be seen. The latter might help win back suburban, college-educated women, but the former is much better fodder for Tucker Carlson’s show. As Dave Luketic, an Ohio GOP strategist, told me, “The party's conflicted.” It doesn't know what kind of Trumpism it wants to pursue.
Which is why so many of its ambitious figures have decided (or are likely to decide) to throw their hats into the 2022 Senate race. In addition to Timken and Mandel, there’s hillbilly turned venture capitalist J. D. Vance, businessman Bernie Moreno, salt-of-the-earth investment banker Mike Gibbons, Representative Mike Turner, and state Senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Indians. The group has more than a year to feel out where the electorate’s heart lies—with the traditions of Ohio’s Republican past, or with a Trump-inflected future.
On the national level, pro-business Republicans have long dominated Ohio politics. Historically, the businessmen of Cleveland and Cincinnati—along with their lawyers and accountants—have voted for the GOP, while their working-class employees, the steel- and autoworkers, have voted for Democrats. The rise of Republicans such as Senator George Voinovich reflected the mid-20th-century shift of some white ethnic enclaves to the Republican Party after Richard Nixon's “southern strategy” traveled north, but in general, Ohio’s Republicans put on a moderate front. Governors Bob Taft and John Kasich didn’t offer much fire and brimstone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the state’s top Republican figures in recent decades have tended to be raised Catholic—Voinovich, Kasich, and DeWine—reflecting cultural conservatism but also a certain restrained public rhetoric befitting people accustomed to praying silently on kneelers rather than loudly testifying.
Like many states, Ohio is a regional mishmash—part Midwestern farmland, part Appalachia, part industrial Northeast—but its top Republican officials mostly came from the polite suburban environs of its largest cities, some of which fancy themselves extensions of the East Coast; both Taft and Portman went to Cincinnati Country Day School, then onto the Ivy League.
But Ohio's old-school Republican brand doesn’t suit its new base. “I really think it’s the rural vote that’s going to define” the 2022 primary, a suburban Republican politico told me. Doug Deeken, the GOP chair of rural Wayne County, says the priorities of the people in his neck of the woods are simple: ”We like babies, we like guns, we like to be left alone.” Respectfully, Deeken told me, Dolan, a wealthy moderate from the Cleveland suburbs, couldn’t win a race to be dogcatcher in Wayne County.
The primary is a post-Trump stylistic experiment in bridging the gap between the old party and the new. Timken, who’s never run for office, seems dispositionally and biographically to have more in common with the party leaders of days gone by. A Harvard-educated lawyer who married into a wealthy family, she’s a major Republican donor. She gave enough to hang around at a Trump-attended April fundraising weekend in Florida, while Mandel gate-crashed the event and was asked to leave. Mandel could probably out-yell Timken in a room—he was temporarily suspended from Twitter for asking which types of “illegals” would commit more crimes: “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers”—but she has Trump bona fides to play up. “Kasich had transformed the party organization into a corrupt, anti-Trump mess,” Timken said earlier this year, bragging that she’d turned the Ohio GOP into “a well-oiled, pro-Trump machine.” Trump reportedly was tempted to endorse Timken this spring, though he’s held off for now.
Part of Timken’s appeal is that she belongs to that ebbing GOP demographic: white, college-educated women. “Very candidly, I like that she’s gender diverse,” the Cincinnati-area GOP chair, Alex Triantafilou, told me. In the shadow primary of endorsements, Timken has been doing well, picking them up from officials around the state. The 43-year-old Mandel, who is running for the Senate for a dizzying-for-his-age third time, has a lead in early polls. Much of that is likely name recognition, though, which might not end up being an advantage. The suburban Republican politico told me that Mandel’s incessant campaigning over the past decade has worn some donors out. In May, the Delaware County GOP ended its joint fundraising account with Mandel, and three of the campaign’s fundraisers left. In late June, reports came out that staffers had quit because of a toxic work environment created by Mandel’s finance director, who is also his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Timken’s competition in the Trumpy-but-I-know-wine lane could be Vance, the author of the best-seller Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in a working-class town in southwest Ohio before moving on to Yale Law School and a career in finance, Vance has carefully transitioned his Never Trump Republicanism—“I can’t stomach Trump,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2016—into what might be called academic populism. These days, he tweets and writes a lot—about the birth rate, about tech companies, about how day care is bad for American children—and is a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson’s show, not Gross’s. Carlson, who declined to talk for this article, citing his friendship with a number of people in the race, has described Vance as “soft-spoken but really intense.” Carlson’s endorsement, implicit or not, could in some ways be as powerful as Trump’s. The nature of Republican politics is now such that local issues seem to matter less than what Fox News decides will drive the day.
Vance’s ability to exist in two worlds—that of the party’s new working-class base and that of its traditional gatekeepers—is potentially valuable code-switching. “Authenticity,” people kept telling me, is what will resonate most with Ohio voters. Vance has developed an ease with Fox’s language. “She was elected or whatever,” he said in a June segment about Vice President Kamala Harris, the “or whatever” doing quite a bit of heavy lifting. By dint of his hardscrabble upbringing, Vance could plausibly attract swaths of voters in places like the industrial Mahoning Valley, filled with Trump Democrats, and the river counties, the southeastern Appalachia-tinged places that abut the Ohio River.
Meanwhile, Mandel, who hails from Beachwood, a heavily Democratic, East Side suburb of Cleveland, has received a barrage of criticism from some close watchers of the race for what they see as his clumsy attempts to appeal to these same voters. Mandel appeared on Fox News earlier this year speaking in a bit of a downstate drawl. “In many ways he’s trying to culturally fit into where he views the party going,” Luketic told me, adding that he thinks the race is Mandel’s to lose. One story in the Cleveland press that attacked Mandel contained a line about “the mean streets of Beachwood, where shopping for a cashmere crewneck meant taking your life in your hands.” A longtime friend, who is not supporting his Senate run and thus wishes to remain anonymous, sees some of the attacks on Mandel as anti-Semitic: “Beachwood equals Jew, and Jew equals rich, and rich equals No way that person can understand the plight of the common person.”
While Vance might have the biographical resonance with the party base that Mandel has contorted himself to gain, he’s also never run for office before. The libertarian investor and Trump-backer Peter Thiel’s $10 million donation to a pro-Vance super PAC has made waves, but the fascination that Fresh Air listeners have with Vance—perverse or otherwise—doesn’t necessarily translate to electoral appeal. “Having millions of dollars in this Senate primary is just the ticket to the prom. It does not get you crowned queen or king,” Deeken told me.
The GOP base’s anger with COVID-19 regulations has only accelerated the Trumpification of Ohio’s Republican ecosystem. DeWine’s steady-Eddie pandemic stewardship irritated Trump to the point of calling for the governor to be primaried. Asked and answered: Jim Renacci, a former congressman and failed Senate and gubernatorial candidate, has announced that he will challenge DeWine, with Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale as an adviser. COVID-19 has itself become a dog whistle, a way to indicate that one is of the Trump-era Ohio Republican Party, not of the Kasich or Portman days gone by. At the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, Mandel blamed America’s “authoritarian state” on “squishy Republican governors like my Governor DeWine”; on Fox, Vance said that “one of the things that COVID has revealed is that our public-health authorities especially are just not trustworthy.” This spring the Republican-led legislature passed a bill—and overrode DeWine’s veto—that granted it the authority to cancel the governor’s health orders.
In late June, Trump reemerged from his postelection seclusion and chose Ohio for his debut. The rally he held—specifically to stick it to Gonzalez—was Trump’s first since the January insurrection. A bevy of Senate candidates roamed the event, passing out flyers and tailgating with supporters. During his remarks Trump took a straw poll, asking the crowd to applaud their support for Timken, Mandel, and Gibbons. According to a report from the ground, Mandel appeared to win.
Gonzalez spent the evening of the rally out to dinner with his wife. Although the past few months have been rough for him—he was officially censured by the Ohio Republican Party in May—Gonzalez has remained steadfast in his stance that Trump’s ire wouldn’t affect his chances. “The job is a legislative job,” he told Cleveland.com. “The job isn’t to go on TV and Twitter and scream and yell. The job is: How are you productive for your constituents?” At least, that’s what the job used to be.