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Competition for 'Trump lane' heats up in Ohio Senate race

Competition for the former president’s all-important endorsement is heating up with Josh Mandel and Jane Timken announcing bids for Sen. Rob Portman's seat in 2022.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in West Chester, Ohio, on March 13, 2016.Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Ohio’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat has prompted a rush to embrace Donald Trump among top Republicans interested in the job, in a state the former president won twice.

Jane Timken, who recently resigned as chair of the state party to prepare a campaign, announced her candidacy Thursday by offering herself as a “conservative disrupter” who helped sweep out moderate allies of Ohio’s anti-Trump former governor, John Kasich.

“I’m running for the United States Senate to stand up for you, just like when I stood next to President Trump and supported his America First agenda,” Timken said in her launch video.

Following GOP Sen. Rob Portman's announcement that he would not seek re-election, Timken joins a Republican field that already includes Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer who entered the race last week with a vow that he, too, would “fight for President Trump’s America First agenda.”

In an interview with NBC affiliate WKYC of Cleveland, Mandel also echoed Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen from the former president — a baseless claim embraced by the pro-Trump rioters who last month stormed the Capitol where Mandel seeks to work.

At least six other Republicans are considering a run for the seat, up for grabs in 2022. The list includes sitting members of Congress and several businessmen who could self-finance their campaigns or have access to wealthy donors, including J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist known for his best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Trump has not given any indication that he will weigh in on the race, but he has suggested that he’ll work as a private citizen to influence the outcomes of certain primaries.

IMAGE: Jane Timken
Jane Timken, then the chair of the Ohio Republican Party, speaks at the Hamilton County Board of Elections during early voting in Norwood on Oct. 6.Aaron Doster / AP file

“Right now, you’re looking at Timken and Mandel competing for the Trump lane,” said Michael Hartley, a Republican strategist in Ohio who has worked on Kasich’s campaigns. “You’re probably going to have one or two self-funders, who also could compete for Trump supporters. That then provides a potential opportunity for a, quote-unquote, traditional conservative from the congressional ranks to make a run. One thing I do know is, it’s going to be incredibly expensive.”

There is speculation that one such possibility is Rep. Steve Stivers, according to Republicans who spoke to NBC News this week. Stivers, a major general in the Ohio Army National Guard, represents the Columbus suburbs and has a national donor database, thanks to a previous stint running the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“As a general, Steve Stivers would tell you that one of the biggest mistakes a general could make is fighting the last battle,” said Joe King, a Republican consultant in Ohio who is close with Stivers. “So the key here is, how do we build on what we've done and take it forward? That’s the kind of thought that goes into his process. People are to be commended for being a loyal soldier, but there’s something to be said for someone who knows how to command an army.”

For the moment, though, the early days — Mandel and Timken are the first two declared candidates from either party — are filled with pledges of allegiance to Trump. The dynamics are instructive about a state that veered sharply from traditional Kasich conservatism, which now seems moderate by comparison to Trumpism.

Timken, 54, is part of an Ohio family with deep roots in industry and Republican politics in the state. Her husband, Tim, was until 2019 the president and chief executive of TimkenSteel, which spun off from a long-standing manufacturing company that also bears the family name. The couple hosted a fundraiser for Trump in August 2016, at a time when many key Ohio Republicans were doing little to help the then-Republican presidential nominee out of deference to Kasich, who had dropped his own White House bid in May.

In her launch Thursday, Timken emphasized how she was Trump’s hand-picked choice four years ago to oust the Kasich ally who was chairing the Ohio Republican Party. She was dialed into the White House and Republican National Committee via Bob Paduchik, who managed Trump’s 2016 victory in Ohio and is now a leading candidate to succeed her as chair of the state party. Her new campaign website includes one photo of her next to a beaming Trump giving a thumbs-up, and another with her arm wrapped around Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, who’s been mentioned as a potential Senate candidate in North Carolina.

Mandel, 43, is a Marine Corps veteran who served two terms as state treasurer and lost a 2012 bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. He was prepared for a rematch with Brown in 2018 but dropped out, citing his then-wife’s health. Since then, Mandel has sat on more than $4 million in unused campaign funds — a sum that along with his statewide name recognition makes him a front-runner but also rankled other Ohio Republicans who wished he’d have shared it with other campaigns in the intervening years.

Josh Mandel
Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel speaks at the Ohio Republican Party election night celebration in Columbus on Nov. 4, 2014.Tony Dejak / AP file

Despite their professed closeness to the former president, Trump wasn’t either candidate’s first choice in 2016. In his announcement, Mandel’s team emphasized that he was the first statewide official to support Trump in 2016 and noted that “Josh gave himself and his campaign team to Trump’s campaign.”

But Mandel supported Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the primaries that year, a move that also equated to snubbing the Kasich establishment while the then-governor was running for president. Timken, meanwhile, has acknowledged backing Kasich early in the 2016 campaign.

Hours after Timken’s announcement Thursday, Mandel tweeted an old photo of her embracing Kasich, signaling how he will move aggressively to frame her as insufficiently loyal to the Trump cause.

After a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, and before Portman announced his retirement, a reporter at The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland observed that Timken had put some distance between herself and Trump. And Mandel and his advisers have taken particular notice of how Timken has handled her own congressman, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump. Timken told The Plain Dealer earlier this month she didn’t know “if I would have voted the way he did” while also praising Gonzalez as a “very effective legislator.”

Only later, on the day Timken resigned from the state party post in anticipation of announcing her Senate bid, did she tweet that she disagreed with Gonzalez’s decision.

“Josh Mandel is the only unabashedly pro-Trump candidate in this race,” Scott Guthrie, Mandel’s campaign manager, said Thursday morning in an emailed statement. “While other candidates said they ‘didn’t know’ how they would vote on impeaching President Trump, Josh Mandel stood strongly and vocally against the sham and unconstitutional impeachment.”

When Trump won Ohio by 8 points the first time, in 2016, Portman cruised to a second term by more than 20. Corry Bliss, who managed that campaign for Portman, has signed on as Timken’s general consultant.

“There’s only one candidate in this race who has been endorsed by President Trump before, and that’s Jane Timken,” Bliss said Thursday, referring to the 2017 state party chair election.

“Obviously she would be honored to have President Trump’s endorsement in this race,” he added, though he declined to say if the two have spoken about the possibility.

Aside from Stivers and Vance, other Republicans believed to be weighing a Senate bid on the Republican side include Reps. Bill Johnson and Mike Turner, Cleveland-area businessman Bernie Moreno and Michael Gibbons, an investment banker who was unknown to voters outside political donor circles three years ago and ran relatively strong in the 2018 Senate primary. Gibbons reinforced his interest in the 2022 race this week by calling on the state party, which remains stacked with Timken allies, to stay neutral in the primary.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan and Dr. Amy Acton, the former director of the Ohio Department of Health who emerged as a major presence on local TV during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, are among those considering a run.

Asked this week about early efforts by Republican hopefuls to demonstrate unflinching loyalty to Trump, Bryan Williams, the interim chair of the state party, cast doubts on Mandel’s sincerity.

“While Mandel’s rhetoric has recently taken on a Trumpian tone, he was a Marco Rubio supporter, and during the Trump administration he was not a vocal Trump supporter,” said Williams, who added that he is not seeking the chairmanship permanently and is not planning to make a personal endorsement in the primary. “But that’s exactly who I think Josh is trying to woo right now.”

Nick Everhart, an Ohio-based Republican media consultant, isn’t sure the Trump factor helps or hurts any candidate profoundly unless the former president himself gets directly involved in the race.

“Being pro-Trump, it’s almost become like being pro-gun, pro-life,” he said. “It’s just another GOP primary litmus test that’s necessary to survive. Unless Trump comes in and outright endorses somebody, the chances for the pro-Trump angle to be a differentiator for all these folks is going to be very minimal. It’s not going to be the thing that creates separation, unless someone has gone out of their way to bad-mouth him in the past. Then you’ve got something an opponent can weaponize.”