IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Competitive, chaotic Ohio GOP Senate primary is just three months away

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: JD vance
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, right, listens as senatorial candidate JD Vance speaks at a rally in Mason, Ohio, on Jan. 30, 2022.Jeff Dean / AP file

WASHINGTON — If it’s Friday ... President Biden speaks on the January jobs report. ... China’s Xi embraces Russia’s Putin as Olympic Games begin. ... RNC panel advances resolution censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. ... And NBC’s Benjy Sarlin deciphers Joe Manchin’s latest comments.

Also, we want to hear from you to improve your experience reading our newsletter, so go here to complete a brief survey.

But first: What do you get when you mix Twitter trolling, about $30 million in self-funding, a billionaire financier and big-money outside groups?

You get this year’s GOP Senate primary in Ohio, one of the most competitive and chaotic Republican primaries on the calendar this year.

And it’s now just three months away.

It has it all: money, the Donald Trump x-factor, a shifting battleground and control of the Senate sitting on a knife’s edge.

Wealthy candidates have poured millions into the race, led by investment banker Mike Gibbons who loaned his campaign a whopping $11.4 million, and state Sen. Matt Dolan who put in $10.5 million. Businessman Bernie Moreno and former state GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken have dropped a few million of their own, too. (Moreno, however, dropped out of the race Thursday.)

Then there’s the outside spending. Protect Ohio Values, funded by billionaire Peter Thiel, is backing “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance, while Club for Growth Action is backing former state Treasurer Josh Mandel. There’s also Ohio Leads, a pro-Timken super PAC, and a new super PAC that’s funded by Dolan’s relatives.

All of that spending has caused some candidates to rise in recently released internal polls (though take those internals with a grain of salt). One takeaway from the polling, though? There are plenty of undecided voters.

That’s one reason why Trump looms large over this race, since his endorsement could be a game-changer. (The former president, in fact, was on Moreno's mind when he dropped out, as he said he spoke with Trump and decided a divided field "could cost the MAGA movement a conservative seat.”)

Except for Dolan, every Republican in the primary is jockeying for position in the pro-Trump lane — Mandel and Vance by taking Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to their opponents and critics; Gibbons by playing up his outsider businessman persona; and Timken by evoking her work with Trump to win Ohio. (Be sure to read NBC’s Henry Gomez’s latest piece on Mandel.)

And a final question: Will any of this matter in the fall? The state has been trending Republican — Trump expanded his vote share in each of his two wins there, and GOP Gov. Mike DeWine was able to stem the tide and win re-election there in the Democratic wave year of 2018 (Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown beat his GOP challenger that year, too).

Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running in Brown’s mold, appears to be avoiding a tough primary. And if Mandel’s the nominee, Democrats will likely be heartened by their past success running against him statewide. But Democrats will still need just about everything to go right if they want to buck the national trends and win one on the GOP’s home field.

Tweet of the day

Midterm roundup

Biden authorized the DNC to transfer $15 million to the House and Senate campaign committees, NBC’s Mike Memoli reports.

The RNC’s winter meeting this week underscored “a divide in the GOP between Trump’s obsessions and the issues many GOP operatives consider crucial to winning the midterm elections,” NBC’s Peter Nicholas and Allan Smith report from the meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Today RNC members will consider a resolution instructing the party to censure two vocal Trump critics, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and “immediately cease any and all support” for the lawmakers.

The conservative Club for Growth PAC endorsed Blake Masters — who runs billionaire Peter Thiel’s investment firm and foundation — in the Arizona GOP Senate primary yesterday.

New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the state’s new congressional map into law, which benefits Democrats. Cook Political Report’s Dave Wassserman’s analysis shows that Democrats could net two to three House seats due to recent redistricting developments.

Ad watch: Flood fires back at Fortenberry

The ad fight in Nebraska's First Congressional District continues to heat up. In yesterday’s newsletter, we highlighted GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s ad attacking primary challenger Mike Flood. A few hours later, ad tracking firm AdImpact captured Flood’s response airing on local stations in Nebraska, where he hit back against Fortenberry’s allegations that Flood isn’t tough on immigration.

“The truth: Mike is a law-and-order conservative. He opposed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants,” Madison County Sheriff Todd Volk says in Flood’s commercial.

The ad also attacked Fortenberry, detailing the federal indictment he’s facing for lying to the FBI about illegal foreign campaign contributions (which Fortenberry denies). The sheriff says Fortenberry is “lashing out at law enforcement and lying about Mike Flood.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … $71,000

That’s how much money both Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and his primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros, each have booked on the TV airwaves from now through the March 1 primary, per ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Cuellar and his allies had massively outspent Cisneros in the months before the race. But Cuellar has been on the defensive since news broke that the FBI had raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office were raided by the FBI — since the Monday after that news, the super PAC supporting Cuellar has spent just $53,000 on the air and doesn’t have any future buys booked yet.

So while the cavalry may still be coming for either candidate (or both), it’s worth noting that Cuellar has all-but lost his ad-spending edge with just weeks to go.

Other numbers you need to know today:

$237.6 billion: How much value Facebook parent company Meta lost yesterday when its stock plunged, the largest one-day dip in value in stock market history.

53: The number of days between America’s 800,000th Covid death and its 900,000th – a mark passed Thursday evening.

76,136,801: The number of confirmed Covid cases so far in America since the start of the pandemic, per an NBC News analysis.

4: That’s the factor by which mail-in ballots by Black voters in Washington state’s 2020 election were rejected when compared to white voters.

$200 million: How much the recall of California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom cost taxpayers, per a final analysis released by the secretary of state Thursday.

300,000: The number of people in America without power due to winter storms across much of the country.

Talking policy with Benjy: The latest on not-Build Back Better

Build Back Back better is dead, dead, deader. But Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., is also dropping constant hints about what parts of it might go in a future hypothetical bill, perhaps with a different name.

In an interview with NBC News’ Sahil Kapul, Manchin offered some of his most detailed thoughts yet. He sees a reconciliation bill (the vehicle for any major legislation, since it can pass with Democratic votes alone) as primarily about tax reform, which in his case means reversing large chunks of the 2017 Republican tax cuts to help pay down the national debt.

“It's the reason we have reconciliation,” Manchin said. “And everyone's talking about everything but that.”

As we reported earlier in First Read, Democrats working on a Manchin-friendly bill are considering reserving some tax revenue for deficit reduction to try and woo him. Based on his latest interview, they’re barking up the right tree.

“That’s music to my ears,” Manchin said when asked about the approach. “Deficit reduction, inflation, being fiscally responsible — sounds like something we should be talking about!”

Manchin has also expressed interest in clean energy incentives, as well as boosting the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies to reduce premiums and cover more uninsured, including in states that have declined to expand Medicaid through the law. These are all items that Democrats have thrown out as potential components of a new not-Build Back Better act.

Pinning down Manchin on specifics can be hard and he’s made no guarantee he’ll sign onto a bill, even if Democrats address his every stated concern. But for someone who keeps saying Build Back Better is done and that there are no “formal talks” about passing some of its policies, he sure has a lot of thoughts about what might go in a sequel bill.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

An attempt by senators to overhaul the way Congress counts Electoral College votes is gaining steam.

The Washington Post has a deep dive into the ISIS leader who died in an American special operations raid Thursday, and a look into how President Biden decided to authorize it.

Former DNC chairman Tom Perez has tapped former Baltimore City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed as his gubernatorial running mate.