The Republican primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat has had an unsettling effect on the nature of time in 2022. After each new embarrassment to emerge from the melee, when you would look to see how many days were left until voting day, there always somehow seemed to be more than the last time you checked.
I’m still not sure this primary can ever end; its permanence in the background of national politics feels too much like some sort of celestial punishment. But the calendar says it’s over on Tuesday night, when the candidate eking out a plurality will advance to a general election race against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan.
It’s not clear who’s going to win.
For much of the race, the Republican primary seemed like it would be a contest over who could win over the most MAGA voters by professing undying devotion to Donald Trump and promising to own the libs.
The candidate who led in early stages of the campaign is former state treasurer Josh Mandel, a 44-year-old who for roughly the past 42 years has made each decision in his life according to how it could help him politically. This worked well for Mandel until it didn’t. He lost the 2012 Senate election to Sen. Sherrod Brown, and dropped out of a 2018 rematch.
In his latest incarnation, the former mild surburbanite who once ran on his ability to work with Democrats has chosen to become That Politician whose strategy is oriented around trying to get himself banned from Twitter. He’s burned a mask, posted a poll asking whether “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers” would commit more crimes after crossing the border illegally, and gotten himself booted from a school board meeting where he didn’t reside.
When President Biden announced a COVID vaccine mandate for private businesses last fall, Mandel tweeted a bizarre nighttime video shot in a corn field, in which he told voters not to “comply with the tyranny, and when the Gestapo show up at your front door, you know what to do.” He believes, to the extent he believes anything, that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
The first candidate to challenge Mandel’s lead was Mike Gibbons, an investment banker and relatively early Trump supporter who spent oodles of money to purchase a stake of polling support. By March, these two were going after each other, arguing over, among other things, who secretly loved China more. It was on this topic that the two nearly came to blows at a debate in March.
As Mandel was accusing Gibbons of getting rich off of deals with China, Gibbons responded that Mandel had “never been in the private sector in your life.” OK, a standard talking-point-off between the rich guy and the career politician. For some reason, though, this prompted Mandel to leap out of his seat and say to Gibbons, “Two tours in Iraq. Don’t tell me I haven’t worked.” (This was not what Gibbons had alleged.) The two had to be separated, and Mandel called Gibbons a “pussy.”
The incident was a low point in a race rife with them. But it also turned off Trump, who had enjoyed watching the field spend a year rending their garments in rites of ever-escalating devotion to him.
Within a matter of weeks, Trump endorsed another candidate who had gotten early promise but was then left for dead: J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author and anti-Trump venture capitalist who became … the opposite of all of that when he decided he wanted to run for senator.
Vance adjusted awkwardly at first to his new persona as a conservative culture warrior—at one point he made news for an odd rant about how people without kids shouldn’t be allowed to run the government, in which he called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “childless cat ladies.” He also took a battering for most of the campaign—especially from the pro-Mandel Club for Growth—about his many attacks on Trump during the 2016 election, in which Vance voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin. Trump is forgiving, though, and respects how Vance now says the opposite of everything he used to say. Besides, Trump likes the “look” of Vance, and gets pleasant feelings when he sees him on Tucker Carlson’s show.
Trump’s endorsement—among the riskier ones he’s made, given that Vance was far from the lead when he made it—has done the trick, even if Trump can’t always remember Vance’s name. Vance’s support has roughly doubled since Trump backed him in April, to the point where he now has a lead of a few points over Mandel in the polling average. Gibbons has slid back. Former state party chairwoman Jane Timken, meanwhile, is still far back in fifth place, despite earning the endorsement of retiring Sen. Rob Portman.
The most interesting wrinkle over the last week, though, has been the sudden rise of another candidate: Matt Dolan, a state senator whose dad owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. Dolan entered the race relatively late in the cycle after noticing that the lane for a normal person was wide open. Dolan is not strictly “anti-Trump,” but he’s refused to supplicate for Trump’s affection, and he believes the GOP should move on from arguing that the 2020 election was stolen. (Trump hates him for this, and also because his father changed the name of the Cleveland Indians.) Dolan has risen in the last couple of polls to be right up there with Vance and Mandel.
Whoever wins the Republican primary will be the favorite in November’s general election, even if Tim Ryan runs a strong Democratic campaign. Ohio was the quintessential swing state as recently as a couple of presidential elections ago. But in 2020, Biden lost the state by 8 points, and now he has the added bonus of being very unpopular. Ohio is not fertile territory for the Democratic Party. You don’t see Mitch McConnell freaking out about this race very much.
But with Dolan’s apparent rise, we could see a surprise ending to this interminable primary. We’ve heard lamentations over the last year about how the state once represented by mild-mannered Senate Republicans like Portman, George Voinovich, and Mike DeWine had ceded control to the cutting edge of the Trumpist id. There’s now a chance that a Republican of that precise, old-fashioned strain could win, anyway. It will just have been a circuitous route through a field that’s split the much larger MAGA vote.