Politics

A Guide to the Crazy Pants Ohio Republican Senate Primary and Its Most Recent Crazy Pants Debate

J.D. Vance didn’t even show up, which gave the other candidates their chance to shine.

The candidates are seated on a red church stage in front of an Ohio Republican Party backdrop.
From left, seated behind the debate’s moderator: Mark Pukita, Matt Dolan, Josh Mandel, Mike Gibbons, and Bernie Moreno. Screengrab via North Columbus Baptist Church/Vimeo

The Ohio Republican Senate primary is not being held until May, but has already made a number of national headlines as its competitors have raced to the bottom of the MAGA barrel and then tried to dig through it to find an even lower level of barrel. Well-connected venture capitalist J.D. Vance is pretending he hates “the elite” and thinks QAnon makes a lot of sense, while perennial candidate Josh Mandel is calling for violent resistance against the vaccine “Gestapo” and adopting a southern accent on Fox News despite being from suburban Cleveland. It’s been fun times from the get-go.

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Last Thursday night in Columbus, five of the candidates gathered for a forum, which was basically a debate but with less overt hostility and formal back-and-forth. In viral tweets, Politico’s Natalie Allison flagged some of the event’s worst/best moments, chief among them IT entrepreneur and candidate hopeful Mark Pukita’s monologue about why people should know that Mandel is Jewish. What better use of 90 minutes could there be than reviewing the entire tape?

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Before we dig in, here’s a primer on the candidates:

• Vance, who skipped the event, is the author and investor who denounced white rural America for its purported culture of poverty in Hillbilly Elegy, ran a Middle America-focused tech startup fund backed by Jeff Bezos, and has called Donald Trump, among other things, an idiot. He is running as a fanatical Trump supporter who will protect white American culture against the influence of wealthy tech figures like Jeff Bezos. (This is really true!)

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• Longtime state party figure Jane Timken, who was also absent, wants to be a regular conservative senator and is saying Trump stuff because it seems like the best way to go at the moment.

Among those who were present:

• Mandel is a former state treasurer who was the party’s nominee in a losing 2012 race against Sherrod Brown. He supported Marco Rubio in 2016 but has always come from the racial cheap shot school of conservative politics and transitioned easily into pitching himself as a MAGA enforcer for alt-right and anti-vax types.

• Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons and Pukita are respectively on the more genial and more unhinged edges of the politically incorrect Baby Boomer businessman lane.

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• Cleveland-area car dealer turned cryptocurrency enthusiast Bernie Moreno is a Colombian immigrant running on the idea that the U.S. is descending into failed-state Latin American socialism. (He is also younger and more handsome than the name “Bernie” and the phrase “Cleveland-area car dealer” would suggest.)

• State senator Matt Dolan is running as someone who supports Trump on some things, but not others, and will therefore lose.

Here we go! Time stamps are by the minute. Reminder that last Thursday was Veteran’s Day.

4:45: Local pastor and state representative Gary Glick thanks veterans for their service during his introduction.

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8:15: The Pledge of Allegiance is recited.

10:00: Moderator Jack Windsor thanks veterans for their service.

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11:45: The national anthem is sung.

16:30: Pukita, who wears the clear rectangular glasses frames of a mild-mannered architect but seems to vibrate with the throwback rage of a man who gets mimeographed newsletters from other Barry Goldwater donors, opens his remarks by denouncing (among other things) “facades” and “caricatures,” which, it will soon become clear, is a shot at Mandel (and Vance). “I make people uncomfortable,” he says matter-of-factly, then calls conservative Republican Mike DeWine “an awful governor” who “should never hold office again” to huge applause. (DeWine is disliked by some right-wingers for having instituted relatively modest anti-COVID restrictions.)

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18:50: Dolan thanks veterans for their service.

23:30: Mike Gibbons mentions genially that his father was the winningest wrestling coach in Ohio history and that he’s available to resurface driveways because he always thought he’d get into the concrete business before he became a banker.

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26:00: Moreno: “My family brought us here legally 50 years ago next month. And when we came to America, my mom’s priority for all of us was that we had to become part of the American fabric. That meant learning English, learning American customs, mastering the language. We had to prepare ourselves to take a test to become an American citizen. For me that meant reading the Declaration of Independence, knowing all 58 signers and their stories, and hearing these words: That our rights come from God, and not from government.”

33:00: Gibbons is cut off by the moderator during what seems to be a complaint about how work shortages have affected McDonald’s.

36:30: Mandel asks for a show of hands from anyone in the audience who’s been “censored, penalty boxed, or kicked off social media.” Many hands go up.

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42:10: Mandel mentions that he is a veteran.

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43:40: Gibbons says genially that he’s vaccinated, and tells a story about arguing with a friend of who initially told him not to get the vaccine, but also says he wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine if someone had told him he did have to get the vaccine—luckily no one made that mistake.

44:15: Moreno says that he was, at one point, canceled for criticizing DeWine.

45:30: Pukita brags that he is not vaccinated and confronts Mandel, who had previously refused to say whether or not he’d gotten his shots, about dodging the issue. Mandel takes the microphone only for Pukita to cut him off when it becomes clear he is not going provide an answer this time either.

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46:30: Dolan gets booed for saying that he believes children who attend public schools should be “protected.” He tries to recover by clarifying that he never voted to require mask usage per se, only to leave the issue up to individual school boards.

53:20: Mandel mentions veterans.

55:00: A question about critical race theory is sidetracked by a lingering argument over whether undocumented immigration at the southern border requires the completion of Trump’s wall or the completion of the wall and the domestic deployment of the Army.

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59:40: Gibbons says that “wokeism is the most dangerous idea in the history of the world” and pronounces the first syllable of Kamala Harris like the name Cam, which Politico’s Allison seemed to think might have been an intentional slight but which could also just have been a nasally upper Midwestern attempt at pronouncing it correctly (“comma-la”).

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1:06:45: Moreno mentions veterans.

1:08:00: Moreno says the FBI should have its funding reduced until it stops advancing liberal causes and that Jan. 6 was an “unfortunate riot” rather than an insurrection.

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1:12:50: Pukita says DeWine and Democratic Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther should be in jail.

1:15:20: An increasingly defeated-looking Dolan tries to convince the crowd that you shouldn’t pass abortion bills that will immediately be ruled unconstitutional. Moreno dunks on him shortly thereafter, basically calling him a coward, to huge applause.

1:16:25: The moderator tells Gibbons accusingly that he’s “rumored to be a proponent of electric cars.” (His investment bank works with Lordstown Motors.)

1:23:25: OK, here’s the Pukita rant bit. He says: “So, in terms of anti-Semitism, all I did, in an ad, was pointed out, that Josh is going around saying he’s got the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. Right? But he’s Jewish! That’s fine—everybody should know that, though, right, because to me, it’s a facade, it’s a character. If I went into a mosque, right, with the Constitution and a Koran and said that’s how I was gonna make decisions in Washington? I’d get laughed out of the place. If I did the same in a temple with the Torah and the Constitution, I’d get laughed out of the place . If I went into a Hindu temple with the Gita and the Constitution, they probably wouldn’t laugh, because they’re very, very polite people. But I probably wouldn’t get invited back.”

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1:30:10: Pukita starts his closing statement with a nice anecdote about his grandchildren before declaring that America “is being flushed down the toilet.” The statement concludes, “I want to be your next senator … badly.”

1:33:00: Mandel mentions the armed forces.

Closing comments and grades:

Gibbons is not going to win this race but is having a good time and had a nice suit. 8/10

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Dolan already looks like a hollow-eyed salesman who is going to have to tell his kids that there’s no Christmas this year. He needs to drop out before he reaches medically dangerous levels of beleaguerment. 1/10, gets credit for at least showing up

• For all the attention given to Vance and Mandel’s outrageous positions by national outlets like Slate, Pukita is much more of the genuine article if what you’re looking for is someone who would strangle a Communist in public. 10/10 (but to be clear it would be extremely bad news if he really got elected)

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Mandel has natural authoritarian impulses, which allows him to understand what a certain portion of his audience is looking for, but is hamstrung by being—and I’m sorry, this isn’t nice, but it’s true and relevant to the question of who will win the race—kind of a lurching goon. You can just see the effort coming off of him. Total goon. 0/1,000

Moreno is actually the most charismatic speaker and conventionally promising candidate in the race. During the debate, he took hardline positions that excited the ideologically committed primary voters in attendance, but always maintained the composed, optimistic demeanor of someone who non-ideologues might like. He delivers a polished version of the first-generation American bootstrapper biography that the GOP loves, and is apparently a strong fundraiser. 7/4, for the birthday of the greatest country in the world

Team Moreno 2022!

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