For Now, Trump's Hold On The GOP Is Unbreakable-- Take Ohio
In the drawing above, award-winning political cartoonist and frequent DWT contributor, Nancy Ohanian, set out to capture Senor Trumpanzee's stranglehold on the Republican Party. A few days ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender attempted the same task, using the Ohio Senate race as his canvas: How Tight Is Trump’s Grip on the GOP? Keep this new polling data from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in the back of your mind. "Whereas Biden voters are animated by racial and social justice concerns, Trump voters fear they will suffer personally, socially, culturally, and economically from the effects of immigration. These conflicted attitudes yield major policy divisions. When asked which policy areas concern them most, Biden voters identify with combatting systemic racism and addressing racial diversity. Whereas Biden voters prioritize social justice concerns, Trump voters do not." 84% of Trump voters believe-- 52% strongly-- that discrimination against whites will increase significantly in the next few years." This kind grievance mentality is as strong strong in rural Ohio as it is in Mississippi or Wyoming.
Immigration is similarly fraught and divisive. "For Trump voters," wrote doctors Robert McWilliams and Larry Schack, "the problem as they see it is clear-- they fear they will suffer personally, socially, culturally, and economically from the effects of immigration. They are fearful of themselves or someone close to them suffering economically from the effects of immigration in the form of higher taxes because of immigrants receiving welfare benefits, immigrants receiving healthcare benefits, or immigrants receiving publicly funded education. They also fear higher housing costs as a result of immigration and negative employment repercussions, ranging from an inability to get a higher paying job to receiving lower pay for their current job to losing their current job. Trump voters also express greater concern that they or someone close to them will be a victim of violent crime or domestic terrorism due to illegal immigration, and they are concerned that increased immigration will result in they or someone close to them suffering personally from American cultural change or discrimination against white people. In sum, Trump voters are deeply and personally animated by a strong anti-immigration sentiment that unites their thinking across previously distinct and separate policy areas. These conflicted attitudes yield major policy divisions. When asked which policy areas concern them most, Biden voters identify with combatting systematic racism and addressing racial diversity. These include reducing racial bias and economic and wealth inequality, reducing police violence against all citizens and minorities, and protecting the rights of immigrants and women as well as gay and transgender people. Whereas Biden voters prioritize social justice concerns, Trump voters do not.
OK, on to Ohio, where Rob Portman classic pro-business Republicanism has completely dominated the state GOP for decades. Social conservatives, tea baggers and neo-fascists who have taken over the Republican Party apparatus in other states, had made virtually no gains inside the Ohio party-- and then, suddenly-- they owned it. With Portman retiring from the Senate, "the fight to succeed him," wrote Bender, "revolves around one question only: Which flavor of Trump is best? Five of the six contenders in next May’s GOP primary offer slightly different variations on the former president’s persona to voters-- as well as to Trump himself. All have made pilgrimages to his South Florida estate seeking an endorsement.
The Ohio contest is one of a handful likely to determine control of the Senate, and what happens there could be a leading indicator of the viability of Trumpism without Trump on the ballot. The outcome will provide essential data points on Trump’s own decision about whether to run for president again in 2024 and what it will mean if he does.
“I’m watching Ohio very, very closely,” Trump said in an interview. “They’re all for Trump-- it’s a wonderful thing.”
It’s unclear whether it’s also a wonderful thing for the party, in particular whether a strategy of devotion to Trump will work on a state level in a vote two years after it failed nationwide in the presidential election. Polls show a majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump, which was also true throughout his presidency.
Ohio has been a presidential battleground for two decades, yet Trump won the state by more than 8 percentage points in both of his races. Ohio Republicans have won 16 of 17 statewide contests held during the past three midterm elections. Their single loss was to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, whose blue-collar, economic populism-- which also appeals to many of Trump’s working-class supporters-- is embraced by the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Portman’s seat, Rep. Tim Ryan. [Bender doesn't mention her but the progressive candidate in the Democratic primary, Morgan Harper, is an even stronger advocate for working families. A campaign spokesperson told me this morning that "Vance, Mandel, and Timken are too busy trying to impress Trump to care what Ohioans think. Each one is trying to out-do the other in Trumpian extremism. All the more reason it’s so important that Democrats not cede this seat to them. We can’t afford to use the same old ineffective playbook."]
“Democrats can still win here, especially if the Republican nominee is nothing but a Trumper,” said Aaron Pickrell, who oversaw former President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in the state.
Trump has long delighted in displays of devotion and demanded them from those seeking his endorsement. His distinctive brand of politics has proved impossible to duplicate in its entirety. The result has been a reordering of Republican primary battlefields across the country. Conservative candidates have placed bets on which tentacle of Trumpism is both powerful in a primary and can sustain itself in a general election.
In Ohio, investment banker Mike Gibbons pitches himself as the ultimate Trump delegate, leaning into his white, working-class upbringing to appeal to the core of the Trump political base.
Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer, has adopted an aggressive social-media presence to match Mr. Trump’s and to reframe his 20 years in state politics for voters who prefer an antiestablishment candidate.
Businessman Bernie Moreno draws parallels between private-sector business careers that paid off for both him and Trump.
Jane Timken, a former state party chairwoman, promotes herself as a Trumpian field general whose years in the political trenches optimized her ability to build coalitions and win general elections.
And J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author, has positioned himself as the intellectual heart of Trumpism during repeated media appearances with two custodians of that mantle: Tucker Carlson of Fox News and the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who hosts a conservative podcast.
The one exception is Matt Dolan, a state senator and former prosecutor, who entered the race Sept. 20 as a traditional pro-business candidate and not a Trump acolyte, prompting an immediate response from the ex-president.
“I know of at least one person in the race who I won’t be endorsing,” Trump said in a written statement the same day. [The Cleveland Plain Dealer, on the other hand, endorsed Dolan in the GOP primary.]
Though Trump hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate in Ohio, he told The Journal he is impressed by the “very good candidates in line with my thinking.” In his view, “The single biggest issue is the election fraud of 2020,” he added. There was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Trump has endorsed more than three dozen candidates in the 10 months since he lost re-election, an effort at political influence by an ex-president without parallel in the past century. Not since Teddy Roosevelt regretted handing the reins of the Republican establishment to William Howard Taft in 1908 has a former president enmeshed himself so thoroughly in party politics.
By keeping the party under his thumb, Trump is maintaining his relevance for a potential rematch with President Biden. Trump has privately described his concern that his prominence as party kingmaker would fade if he stopped tending to his supporters, said people who have spoken to him.
...Many of Mr. Trump’s endorsements so far appear guided by his appetite for political payback, of both the benevolent and vengeful variety. About half have gone to current officeholders he views as allies. They have generally supported his continued bid to contest the 2020 vote and are expected to win re-election in 2022.
...Other Trump endorsements aim at unseating two types of Republicans: election officials in 2020 battleground states he lost but contends he won; and federal lawmakers who backed an impeachment charge related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Ten Republicans voted yes when the House impeached Trump in January, before the Senate acquitted him.
The strategy has already paid dividends. On Sept. 16, Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted for that second impeachment of Trump, folded his re-election bid in suburban Cleveland, citing “the toxic dynamics inside our own party.”
Trump’s most frequent endorsements have been in Senate races, where he has backed 12 candidates. Only the one in Georgia-- of Herschel Walker, a former football star and longtime family friend-- involves a seat currently held by Democrats.
To retake the Senate, Republicans need to pick up one of 14 Democratic-held seats on the ballot next year and defend 20 Republican-held ones. Among those are five seats where their incumbents are retiring. Mr. Trump has endorsed candidates for those in Alabama, North Carolina and Pennsylvania but not in Missouri or Ohio.
In Ohio, the quintet of pro-Trump Senate candidates are scrubbing past criticism of Trump from social media, hiring former Trump campaign officials and seeking endorsements from former officials of his administration.
Each has the means to assemble a fully loaded war chest for the primary battle. In interviews, all five said they expected to raise-- from individual contributions or their own bank accounts-- the $10 million that political operatives estimate a successful primary contest would cost.
That would give them all the ability to pitch to the two million Republican voters in the state’s 12 media markets. A primary with so many well-funded candidates would be unprecedented, political operatives said.
...Gibbons, the investment banker, who has put $5.7 million into the race, is also running on his business experience, but in a way that mirrors more closely Trump’s unpolished approach. In an interview, Gibbons, 69, referred to the 43-year-old Mandel as “a boy.”
Gibbons said there was more election fraud in Trump’s loss than in his victory four years earlier, but wasn’t willing to say the 2020 contest was stolen.
Gibbons said Trump supporters who committed crimes on Jan. 6 should be prosecuted, but he also said descriptions of the violence that day were overblown.
Gibbons wants Trump to stay out of the race. He said he saw how much of a game-changer Trump’s involvement had been in 2018 when Gibbons was seeking the GOP Senate nomination that year.
When the 2018 front-runner, Mandel, dropped out, Trump recruited a congressman to run against Gibbons in the primary, even though Gibbons had been a co-chairman of Trump’s 2016 fundraising efforts in Ohio. The person Trump recruited, Rep. Jim Renacci, got the nomination but lost the general election.
Combined with the candidates’ ample funding, the absence of a Trump endorsement has kept the playing field level-- an advantage for Mandel, who entered the race as the best known.
Mandel, a suburban Cleveland council member at 26, is mounting his third bid for the Senate. Polls show Ohio Republicans generally like him, but few love him. He lost to Sen. Brown in 2012 and quit the 2018 primary race despite being ahead. Trump has pressed him about his commitment to the current contest.
At a June rally in Ohio, Trump polled his audience about the contenders. When Mandel got the warmest reception, Trump said, “I think we’ll get out of this poll stuff.”
Mandel has done his best Trump impression with his social-media presence. Allies and opponents alike privately speculated he was trying to get himself banned from the same platforms that have barred Trump.
In an interview, Mandel said Republican voters were looking for brawlers to represent them in Washington and explained his combative posts by saying he has been liberated by the unapologetic approach of Trumpism. He said he believed Trump got more votes than Biden in 2020, without providing evidence.
”Now is not the time for bipartisanship, now is not the time for civility,” Mandel said. “Now is the time for fighters.”
Mandel’s attempt to secure Trump’s endorsement has been largely defined by his bid to keep it away from opponents, advisers said. He has attacked perceived front-runners for the backing by highlighting times he says they have been out of step with Trump.
Mandel’s latest focus is Vance, who has started to rise in candidates’ internal polls.
Vance’s 2016 bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was about growing up in southwest Ohio but was also a cultural critique of white, working-class America. As a candidate, he has pushed for policies outside of the conservative mainstream, including a plan that would raise taxes on corporations that move jobs overseas.
Mandel has attacked him as a “Never Trumper” and promoted video clips from 2016 showing Vance referring to some Trump voters as racists. Vance also referred to the party’s standard-bearer as “cultural heroin” in 2016, and he has deleted tweets critical of Trump, including one that called him “reprehensible.”
51% of Ohioans are fully vaccinated, but the difference in vaccination rates between "blue" counties and "red" Ohio counties is astounding. The correlations are more than noticeable. These are the 5 counties that voted most strongly for Biden (with their vaccination rates):
Cuyahoga Co.- Biden 66.4% (56% fully vaccinated)
Franklin Co.- Biden 64.7% (56% fully vaccinated)
Lucas Co.- Biden 57.4% (50% fully vaccinated)
Hamilton Co.- Biden 57.1% (55% fully vaccinated)
Athens Co.- Biden 56.5% (45% fully vaccinated)
And these are the 5 pathetic counties that voted most strongly for Trump:
Holmes Co.- Trump 83.2% (16% fully vaccinated)
Putnam Co.- Trump 82.3% (43% fully vaccinated)
Mercer Co.- Trump 81.8% (34% fully vaccinated)
Adams Co.- Trump 81.3% (30% fully vaccinated)
Darke Co.- Trump 81.0% (34% fully vaccinated)
And that'n not just true of Ohio. In every state in the union-- all 50-- the counties that voted for Trump most strongly are the one that are keeping the pandemic alive with residents refusing to be vaccinated. The counties with the most people seeing Trump for the sociopath and con-man he is, are the ones who have been vaccinated at rates high enough to start the process of ending the pandemic.