A crowded field is competing to replace Sen. Rob Portman (R–Ohio), who will retire when his term ends next year. Among the Republicans currently campaigning for their party's nomination are former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and Hillbilly Elegy memoirist J.D. Vance. The race has laid bare some ugly aspects of our political moment.
Mandel previously ran, twice, against Ohio's other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown. Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer turned Silicon Valley venture capitalist, has no previous political experience, but he does have the backing of former boss and fellow venture capitalist Peter Thiel. One thing the two candidates have in common is the utter shamelessness with which they stumble over themselves trying to appeal to former President Donald Trump's voting base.
Vance, who infamously insisted in 2016 that he would "never vote for Trump," said after launching his Senate campaign this summer that since Trump is "the leader of this movement…I need to just suck it up and support him." Since then, he has moved deeper and deeper into the authoritarian nationalist wing of the American right, whose members want to use state power to bend society to their will. Last month, for example, he declared that nonprofits like the Ford Foundation are "fundamentally cancers on society" and called for the government to "seize…their assets" and redistribute the proceeds.
Yet Mandel apparently considers Vance a squish, calling him "a RINO and a Never Trumper." He repeatedly has called for the 2020 election to be "decertified," claiming that Trump actually won. While Republicans in Congress have objected to a larger investigation of the January 6 events at the U.S. Capitol, when pro-Trump rioters tried to halt the counting of votes, and they don't tend to dwell on the events themselves. Mandel, by contrast, referred to his fellow Ohio Republican, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, as a "traitor" after Gonzalez voted to impeach the then-president over his behavior before and during the event.
In his first run against Brown in 2012, Mandel backed Mitt Romney, that year's Republican candidate for president; now he stakes out positions on the far end of the Trumpian right. Vance, meanwhile, dispenses bromides with all the conviction of an understudy shoved onstage at the last minute. Days after announcing his candidacy, erstwhile San Franciscan Vance tweeted a "serious question" about New York City: "I have heard it's disgusting and violent there. But is it like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?"
Both candidates seem to be doing the same thing: playacting what they think the Trump base wants to see. Whether they're pandering or whether they truly believe these things, the spectacle is bad news. If there's one thing that we should have learned over the last five years, it's that Republicans who are this beholden to Trump have absolutely no appetite for limiting the size and scope of federal power.