'The race is uniquely uninteresting to him': Ohio Senate race takes backseat at Trump rally

Haley BeMiller
The Columbus Dispatch
Former President Donald Trump pauses to listen to the cheers during his speech at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on Saturday June 26 2021 in Wellington, Ohio.

A plane circled over the Lorain County Fairgrounds on a hot Saturday afternoon, towing a banner that proclaimed, "Ohio is Trump country" — followed by the website for Jane Timken's Senate campaign.

Down on the ground, candidates fighting for the GOP nomination in 2022 passed out flyers and mingled with Donald Trump's supporters before he took the stage at his first rally since leaving the White House

Although the former president was front and center, the event served as an opportunity for Ohio's Republican Senate candidates to show off their Trump connections and persuade voters that they'll further his agenda.

But the race took a back burner to other contests being eyed by Trump next year, and observers say it's possible no one will get the coveted endorsement that would boost their campaign in a crowded field.

"Trump doesn’t tend to have much of a preference over candidates unless he has a very personal stake," said Justin Buchler, an associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.

Candidates fight over who's Trumpiest

In many ways, Saturday was the biggest campaign event of the GOP Senate primary so far. 

Timken gathered with supporters before Trump's speech, and her campaign left flyers on parked cars that boasted her ties to the former president. Investment banker Mike Gibbons held a tailgate at the entrance to the fairgrounds, complete with burgers and campaign swag. Other candidates could be seen roaming the grounds or being interviewed by reporters. 

"Saturday's rally was the biggest grassroots event of the year, and as the grassroots' choice for the U.S. Senate, I was thrilled to attend and speak with so many Ohio voters about my pro-Trump, pro-America First agenda," Timken said in a statement.

Trump previously supported Timken in her successful bid for chair of the Ohio Republican Party.

Gibbons, for his part, believes he needs to do little more than hand voters his business card to underscore his relationship with Trump. He co-chaired Trump's Ohio fundraising efforts in 2016 but watched as Trump endorsed former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci over him in the 2018 race for Sen. Sherrod Brown's seat.

"All my competitors are talking about how Trumpy they are," Gibbons said of his role. "Nobody did that."

David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said it was important for the candidates to show face Saturday so they didn't end up on "the list of people who didn’t show proper deference to Trump."

But ultimately, the crowd wasn't there for them.

"The audience was there to hear Trump do the greatest hits album," Niven said. "They weren’t there for the politics of 2022 or the politics of 2024."

Fans and supporters arrive for a Donald Trump rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds on Saturday June 26 2021 in Wellington, Ohio.

Senate race takes a backseat in Wellington 

Trump spent part of his time in Wellington imploring the crowd to help "America-first Republicans" take back the House and Senate in 2022. That's code for GOP candidates who back him and doesn't include what he calls RINOs, or Republicans in name only. 

To that end, Trump trotted out two Ohio candidates he endorsed for Congress: former White House aide Max Miller, who's running against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, and coal lobbyist Mike Carey, who's running in the special election for the 15th Congressional District. Saturday's rally was designed in part to boost Miller and blast Gonzalez after he voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Near the end of his remarks, Trump briefly turned to the Senate candidates and gave a shoutout to four in attendance: Timken, Gibbons, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and car dealer Bernie Moreno. He then conducted a crowd poll but only asked about three of them, leaving out Moreno and prospective candidate J.D. Vance. 

"I do love those polls," Trump said. "Those polls usually turn out to be very accurate."

Mandel seemed to edge out his competitors based on applause and volume.

"I was pleased to receive a great response during the president’s Senate straw poll as the pro-Trump warriors in the crowd know that I was the first candidate in the race to support President Trump, while others were clinging to John Kasich or refusing to vote for Donald Trump altogether," Mandel said in a statement.

Will Trump endorse anyone?

Still, whether Trump will back anyone for Ohio Senate remains to be seen.

Observers say he views politics as transactional and tends only to endorse candidates in races that are personal. Take Ohio's 16th Congressional District: Trump has a vendetta against Gonzalez after the impeachment vote and wants to see him replaced with an ally.

The Senate race, on the other hand, is filled with Republican candidates who weren't in Washington, D.C. during Trump's presidency and therefore don't have an obvious connection to him, good or bad.

"The race is uniquely uninteresting to him right now," Niven said.

That could leave the candidates in a tough spot.

It's difficult for primary competitors to distinguish themselves from one another, Buchler said, and it will be even more challenging if one person can't tout support from the driving force of the GOP. Buchler believes the list of contenders will shrink as the campaign progresses and they begin losing out on money or endorsements.

But even if Trump doesn't choose a favorite, Saturday's rally made clear that they need him to secure a win next year. 

"They each have to demonstrate that they are associated with Trump in some way because the party still very much does belong to him," Buchler said. 

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.