A plane circled over the Lorain County Fairgrounds on a hot Saturday afternoon, pulling a banner that read “Ohio is Trump Land” – followed by the website for Jane Timken’s Senate campaign.
Down on the ground, candidates fighting for the 2022 GOP nomination distributed leaflets and mingled with Donald Trump’s supporters before taking the stage at his first rally since leaving the White House.
Though the former president took center stage, the event provided an opportunity for Ohio Republican Senate candidates to showcase their Trump connections and convince voters that they will move his agenda forward.
But the race has been keeping an eye on other competitions that Trump is keeping an eye on next year, and observers say it’s possible that no one will get the coveted support that would fuel his campaign in a crowded field.
“Trump doesn’t tend to favor candidates unless he has a very personal interest,” said Justin Buchler, associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.
Candidates fight for the Trumpest
In many ways, Saturday was the largest GOP Senate preselection campaign event to date.
Timken rallied with supporters ahead of Trump’s speech, and their campaign left leaflets on parked cars bragging about their connections with the former president. Investment banker Mike Gibbons held a tailgate at the entrance to the fairgrounds, complete with burgers and campaign loot. Other candidates were seen on the premises or interviewed by reporters.
“The rally on Saturday was the biggest popular sport event of the year, and as the base election for the US Senate, I was thrilled to be there and talk to so many voters in Ohio about my Pro-Trump-Pro-America-First Agenda to speak, “Timken said in a statement.
Trump had previously assisted Timken in her successful bid to chair the Ohio Republican Party.
For his part, Gibbons believes there is little more he needs to do than hand over his calling card to voters to underline his relationship with Trump. He co-chaired Trump’s fundraiser in Ohio in 2016, but watched Trump endorse former US MP Jim Renacci over him in the 2018 race for Sen. Sherrod Brown’s seat.
“All of my competitors talk about who Trumpy they are,” Gibbons said of his role. “Nobody did that.”
David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said it was important for candidates to show their faces on Saturday so they weren’t on “the list of people who have failed to give Trump due deference”.
But in the end the crowd wasn’t there for them.
“The audience was there to hear Trump make the greatest hits album,” said Niven. “You weren’t there for the 2022 policy or the 2024 policy.”
Senate races take a back seat in Wellington
Trump spent part of his time in Wellington begging the crowd to help “America’s First Republicans” retake the House and Senate in 2022 only.
To that end, Trump introduced two Ohio candidates he supported for Congress: Former White House Advisor Max Miller, who is running against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, and coal lobbyist Mike Carey, who is in the special election for Jan. Congressional District is running. Saturday’s rally was in part aimed at empowering Miller and blasting Gonzalez after he voted to indict Trump over the January 6 riot.
Towards the end of his remarks, Trump turned briefly to the Senate candidates and called four people in attendance: Timken, Gibbons, former treasurer Josh Mandel and car dealer Bernie Moreno. He then ran a crowd poll but only asked for three of them, leaving out Moreno and future candidate JD Vance.
“I love these polls,” said Trump. “These surveys usually turn out to be very accurate.”
Mandel seemed to be ousting its competitors due to the applause and volume.
“I was pleased with a great response during the President’s straw poll as the pro-Trump warriors in the crowd know I was the first candidate in the running to support President Trump while others stood by or refused to go with John Kasich to vote for Donald Trump altogether, “Mandel said in a statement.
Will Trump support someone?
However, whether Trump will support anyone for the Ohio Senate remains to be seen.
Observers say he sees politics as transactional and tends to only support candidates in personal races. Let’s take the 16.
The Senate race, on the other hand, is full of Republican candidates who were not in Washington, DC during Trump’s presidency and therefore have no obvious connection with him, neither good nor bad.
“The race is uniquely uninteresting for him at the moment,” said Niven.
That could put the candidates in a difficult position.
It is difficult for the main competitors to differentiate from one another, Buchler said, and it becomes even more difficult when one person cannot support the driving force of the GOP. Buchler believes the list of contenders will shrink as the campaign progresses and they will start losing money or advertising.
But even if Trump doesn’t choose a favorite, Saturday’s rally made it clear that they need him to secure a win next year.
“They each have to prove that they are in some way connected to Trump because the party still belongs very much to him,” said Buchler.
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which works for Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliate news organizations across Ohio.