Ohio voters will go to the polls today to decide, in part, whom to nominate in the race to replace Sen. Rob Portman. After cruising to a comfortable victory in 2016, Portman, a Republican, announced last year that he would not seek a third term. Since Ohio primary winners are determined by plurality vote, candidates won't have to worry about runoffs, but about getting the most votes today.
If GOP primary voters have trouble telling the candidates apart, that is understandable. In mid-April, former President Donald Trump endorsed Hillbilly Elegy memoirist J.D. Vance, over former state treasurer Josh Mandel, for the nomination. But at a campaign rally over the weekend, Trump referred to his chosen candidate as "J.D. Mandel."
If even Trump can't tell the candidates apart, what hope do Ohioans have?
Despite a crowded primary field—seven candidates in total—Mandel was the frontrunner for much of the last year. A Marine intelligence specialist, Mandel served two tours in Iraq before returning to Ohio to serve in the state House, followed by two terms as state treasurer. He also ran twice, unsuccessfully, against Democrat Sherrod Brown for Ohio's other Senate seat. In his first bids for public office, Mandel conducted himself as a moderate and eschewed partisan squabbling.
But recently, Mandel has tacked toward his party's hard-right: While in 2012 he introduced Mitt Romney at a presidential campaign rally, last year he proclaimed, "Mitt Romney is a loser." He has claimed as recently as February that the 2020 presidential election contained "clear evidence" of "election fraud," often saying explicitly that "the election was stolen" from Trump. After Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R–Ohio) voted to impeach Trump after his conduct on January 6, Mandel called Gonzalez a "traitor."
Where once Mandel focused on kitchen table issues like jobs and the economy, his campaign has been characterized by red meat for the Trump base—he has referred to an "invasion" of "illegals" at the Southern border "funded" by George Soros, claimed COVID-19 to be a "bioweapon manufactured by the Chinese Communist Party," and blamed the pandemic on the "deep state." And it seemed to be working: For much of last year, Mandel ran comfortably ahead in a crowded field.
But that has changed in recent months: Despite Mandel spending so much time courting the former president's base, Trump's eventual endorsement went to Vance, a former venture capitalist. Trump's endorsement seems to have supercharged Vance's campaign, putting him neck-and-neck with Mandel.
The fact that Trump chose Vance likely came as a shock to the other candidates: Vance infamously said in 2016 that he would "never vote for Trump," before shrugging last summer that he would "suck it up and support him."
As a candidate for Senate, Vance has embraced the openly authoritarian, nationalist wing of the conservative movement. He advocated seizing the assets of nonprofits whose politics he does not like. Just weeks into Russia's unprovoked war on Ukraine, Vance said he didn't "really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another." Both he and Mandel have pushed the "why care about Ukraine's border instead of our own" line, as if condemning expansionist military actions is mutually exclusive with enforcing immigration policy. (More recently, Vance clarified that "Regardless of…what's going on in Ukraine or what's going on in Russia, it is not in our vital national security interest.")
Vance's biggest benefactor is his former boss in venture capital, Peter Thiel, who has pumped more than $13 million into the race. Thiel, once considered a prominent libertarian, nowadays touts the virtues of "national conservatism," an ideology less concerned with individual liberty and personal responsibility and more focused on restricting immigration and trade and weaponizing the federal government to punish its perceived enemies.
Of course, Vance and Mandel are not the only candidates running: Indeed, the closest thing to a moderate that the race has is likely Matt Dolan, an Ohio state senator. Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, contributed more than $10 million of his own money to the race. But as the other candidates traveled to Florida to pitch themselves to the former president, Dolan has established himself as a more moderate choice, the only candidate to not seek Trump's endorsement. He is also the only candidate to affirm that the 2020 election was not, in fact, stolen.
But even though Dolan does not seek Trump's explicit favor, he is still making a play for the former president's base: On his campaign website, Dolan demonstrates his support of "academic freedom" by touting his vote in the state senate to "ban critical race theory in Ohio," despite bans on subjects being a clear violation of the principles of academic freedom. Dolan has been surging in recent polls and could carry out an upset. But it is also likely, as Politico reported, that he could be stymied by "a low ceiling of support, given his dependence on Republican voters who are willing to move on from Trump — a minority of the party."
Among the other candidates: In February, investment banker Mike Gibbons briefly led the field. Gibbons has spent more than $15 million of his own money but will likely be remembered mostly for two debates in March. In the first, Gibbons stood nose-to-nose with Mandel as they each tried to shout the other down about their respective records. In the second, Gibbons was flummoxed and unable to respond after being accused of sexism by fellow candidate Jane Timken for previously claiming that she had "barely worked" prior to entering politics.
For her part, Timken, former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, has tried to use her status as the only woman in the race to set herself apart from the pack. She refers to herself as a "mom on a mission" and garnered media attention for a February campaign ad in which she referred to the men she was running against as "guys who overcompensate for their inadequacies." But despite a cheeky ad, plus the endorsement of the outgoing Portman, Timken has yet to poll any higher than 10 percent in a race in which the winners poll in the mid-20s. The other two candidates in the race, Neil Patel and Mark Pukita, have never polled over 2 percent.
Going into the primary today, polls show that the likeliest winners are either Vance, Mandel, or a late-surging Dolan. But regardless of who captures the nomination, the result is likely to be the same: A Trump simulacrum, dedicated more to culture war grievances than traditional conservative principles like personal freedom or constraining the size of government. No matter who wins today, everybody who values liberty loses.