COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republicans running for the seat of outgoing Ohio Senator Rob Portman seem determined to bury the mellow country club bonhomie that was once a hallmark of the party in this state and replace it with boxing conservatism owned by Donald J. Trump and now bolstered by the new group of Buckeye bombers.
The race turned into a brutal brawl as the leading candidates, author-turned venture capitalist JD Vance, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and a self-funded businessman, Mike Gibbons, came in the last weekend before Tuesday’s primary, accusing each other of being insufficiently right or disloyal. to the man in Mar-a-Lago.
Ohio was formerly known for the quiet conservatism of celebrated former state senator George Voinovich and its current governor, Mike DeWine; for the Merlot-swilling happy-warrior days of former Speaker of the House, John A. Boehner; for the moderation of John Kasich, a two-term governor; and for the free trade, free market ideology of Mr. Portman himself.
Instead, affections for such leaders in Ohio are now being weaponized—in candidate commercials and ads by their allies—as evidence that rivals are only paying lip service to Mr. Trump and his angry populism.
“Josh Mandel: Another failed career politician,” a new ad from a super PAC that supported Mr. Vance blared on Ohio television sets Friday, calling Mr. Mandel, who is entering his third round of the Senate, a “two-time loser” and “a moderate for the moderates.”
After so much vitriol, the Ohio primary will shed light on how much power the former president can still wield from his exile. But in the closing days of the campaign, the leading candidates left no doubt about his ideological hold on the party.
At an evangelical church near Dayton on Friday, Mr. Mandel campaigned with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who sought to mitigate the impact of Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Vance two weeks ago. “In the end, it’s not about who supported whom,” said Mr. Cruz before he and Mr. Mandel mobilized an older audience with winding praises of conservatism and criticism of Democrats.
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Some in the crowd of more than 100 feared Mr. Vance’s chance of winning Mr. Mandel had shrunk considerably. “I think it’s gone down quite a bit,” said Paul Markowski, a retired police officer in a Trump 2020 cap. He said he had not forgiven Mr Vance for comments he made in 2016 denouncing Mr Trump and saying that some of his support was driven by racism.
“I could get over the fact that he didn’t support Trump,” said Mr. Markowski. “But when he gave us, the voters, a bad mouth, it pissed me off.”
Mr. Vance, for his part, pushed for his attack on Mr. Mandel, who had competed for the former president’s approval with ads calling himself “pro-God, pro-gun, pro-Trump.” The spokeswoman for Mr. Vance, Taylor Van Kirk, called Mr. Mandel “a fake, fraud and sellout, who publicly claims to be ‘anti-establishment’, but President Trump and the entire MAGA movement is throwing under the bus at the establishment behind closed doors. doors.”
For his part, the only Republican to say the party should leave former president, Senator Matt Dolan, criticized Mr. Vance for taking members of the party’s extremist wing, Georgia representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Florida Matt Gaetz. to the state on Saturday — not because of their extreme views, but because they are “outsiders” who “tell Ohioans how to vote.”
In the rush to the right, Gibbons, who had styled himself a businessman after Mr. Trump and once the frontrunner in the Senate contest, are loyal to a right-wing movement called the Convention of States to rewrite the constitution to curtail federal power.
All the major candidates in the Republican Senate primaries have maintained that they are the true conservatives in the race, but only one, Mr. Vance, has the official imprimatur of the former president. That means the verdict from Republican voters on Tuesday will go a long way in showing whether even conservative candidates like Mr. Mandel and Mr. Gibbons can overcome a cold shoulder from Mar-a-Lago.
“President Trump is an important factor in this state,” said Alex Triantafilou, the longtime chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, which includes Cincinnati. “It just is him. He still motivates our base in a way that some people think is waning, but it’s not from my perspective.”
Still, it would be going too far to call Tuesday’s Republican primary a referendum on the future of Trumpism — in Ohio and beyond. The state’s low-key Republican governor, Mr. DeWine, appears not to be threatened in his quest for re-election by a primary challenger, Jim Renacci, whose “Putting Ohio First” campaign took on MAGA themes in his attack on Mr. DeWine’s efforts to fight the pandemic. Mr Trump declined to support Mr Renacci as he saw no prospect of victory.
The former president’s attacks drove the only Ohio Republican who voted to impeach him, Representative Anthony Gonzalez, into retirement, and he supported a former White House aide, Max Miller, who is running for a seat in the Ohio House despite an allegation by one of Mr Trump’s press secretaries, Stephanie Grisham, that he had physically abused her.
But in other contests, such as a heated Republican primaries in northwestern Ohio, mainstream Republicans are expected to prevail against conservative showmen like JR Majewski, who painted his huge backyard in a 19,000-square-foot Trump election sign and video of himself walking. placed. through a factory with shutters and an assault rifle.
However, in the Senate battle here, Mr Trump’s influence is undeniable. The state was once a reliable birthplace of center-right Republicans such as Mr. Portman, Mr. Boehner and Mr. DeWine, who has spent 45 years in Republican politics, serving as a member of the House, Senator, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and governor.
But the free trade, free market and pro-legal immigration sentiments that were once hallmarks of the party have been washed away by Trumpism.
And the Ohio primaries kick off with a four-week period that will reveal much about Mr Trump’s rule at the party — and how transferable his continued popularity is to others. After Ohio, his favorite picks in Nebraska, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia will all be tested in heated primaries.
Mr. Vance, backed by the backing and leader in a Fox News poll, barely penetrates downtown, relying on the backing of the Republican base. On Saturday, he storms through Ohio with two figures from the right edge of the party, Mrs. Greene and Mr. Gaetz. On Sunday and Monday, he will be joined on the campaign trail by two other figures from the former president’s camp, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri and Charlie Kirk, the bombastic leader of the far-right Turning Point USA.
But after months of running in the primaries, Mr. Vance enters the final stretch as a sort of frontrunner while the other candidates fire on him.
Providing aerial cover for Mr. Mandel, the business-backed political action committee the Club for Growth airs an ad reiterating the attacks Mr. Vance made against Mr. Trump and his supporters in 2016, suggesting that the former president made a mistake with his approval.
A pro-Vance super PAC, heavily funded by Peter Thiel, the Trump-aligned financier Mr. Vance works for, fired back Friday with an ad in Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland depicting Mr. Mandel as a “squish.” Mr. Mandel’s embrace by Republican nominees for president in 2008 and 2012, John McCain and Mitt Romney, is treated in the ad like a scarlet letter, and kind words from Mr. Kasich might as well have come from Nancy Pelosi .
“Josh Mandel, he’s for them, not for us,” the narrator says, sending a clear message that Tuesday’s primaries are focused on the Republican extremes, not the kind of voters who once supported Mr. Kasich and Mr. Romney.
Mr. Gibbons, who is still on the hunt for the nomination, will trot forward yet another Trump ally, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, on Monday to testify to his conservative bona fides. In a series of statements on Friday apparently issued to appeal to the far right, Mr Gibbons stated that an “urgent need for real change” meant he would support a convention to rewrite the constitution, saying a new attempt by the Department of Homeland Security to fight disinformation would be “a de facto ‘Ministry of Truth'” to quell dissent.
Jonathan Weisman reported from Columbus, Ohio, and Trip Gabriel from Dayton. Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman reported.