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Ahead of the May 3rd Election, an Evaluation of the March 28th Senate Primary Debates

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer

Ohio Senate primary candidates Traci "TJ" Johnson, Morgan Harper, and Tim Ryan (photo by Josh Bickel, Ohio Debate Commission)

[originally published April 22, 2022]


On January 25th, 2021, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) announced that he would not seek re-election in 2022. This announcement marked the beginning of an acrimonious primary election, one that would feature acts of verbal provocation and even physical intimidation on the GOP side. As Ohio sheds its swing-state status, outside observers are looking to this Senate election as a temperature gauge for the rest of the country. The Democratic primary boasts three candidates, while the Republican primary is saddled with seven; the victors of each respective election may well forecast the rapidly shifting political trends within both national parties. It all culminates in a primary election on May 3rd, followed by a general election on November 8th.

The Senate primary candidates have faced off in a number of live debates over the course of their campaigns, both intra- and inter-party. One of the most recent debates occurred on March 28th at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. There, the Ohio Debate Commission facilitated both a Democratic primary debate and a Republican primary debate.

The Democratic primary debate featured candidates Tim Ryan, Morgan Harper, and Traci “TJ” Johnson. The debate touched on issues of labor, education, foreign policy, and the Supreme Court, among others. The most tense moment of the debate came when Harper criticized Ryan, a current House representative, for taking donations from the defense industry, to which Ryan responded that he supports Ohio labor regardless of the sector. “I want to be clear-headed to make the right decisions for our foreign policy,” Harper said. “That is why I’ve committed to not accept any money from any sector, including the defense contracting sector that my opponent here today has taken over $400,000 from over the course of his career, while we have seen so much harm to our economy and our people here at home.” In response, Ryan said: “Ohio is a state that has tens of thousands of jobs that are directly connected to the defense industry--good-paying, union jobs here in Ohio. And I don’t think we need to waste money, but I don’t think we should immediately be pulling the plug. These are businesses that, of course I’m gonna work with them, they’re putting jobs into Ohio and employing Ohioans.” Ryan reiterated his campaign’s focus on Ohio labor throughout the remainder of the debate and the post-debate press conference, although he did not specify many intended policies or concrete action steps that would aid workers. Ryan’s rhetorical focus on labor mirrors that of Sherrod Brown, the senior Senator from Ohio. Brown, a Democrat, has held his Senate seat since 2007 in an increasingly red state. Ryan seems to be hoping that his rhetorical focus on labor and his comparatively centrist policies will flip Portman’s seat in the same way they earned Brown a formerly Republican seat in 2006.

Ryan leads the Democratic primary, though it is difficult to tell by how much due to the infrequency of polls on the Democratic side. (The most recent available poll, conducted between February 17th and March 15th by the University of Akron, had Ryan at 42.6% to Harper’s 16.5%.) Harper is his most immediate challenger, and she’s relying on her experience as a lawyer for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to prove her readiness and fit for the position. Her campaign emphasizes the issue of special interests and corruption, and relatedly, Harper has vowed that she does not aspire to become a career politician: “I’m not making a career out of it. I’m only going there to be able to deliver value for the people of Ohio, as quickly as we can, because we have no time to waste,” Harper said in her post-debate press conference.

The ODC Republican primary debate followed the Democratic debate on March 28th. The Republican debate featured candidates J.D. Vance, Mike Gibbons, Jane Timken, Mark Pukita, Matt Dolan, Josh Mandel, and Neil Patel. Former President Trump loomed large over the debate; a great deal of the discussion was dedicated to false claims regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 election, with all but one candidate--Matt Dolan--claiming that the 2020 election was “stolen.” (Moderator Karen Kasler reaffirmed the falsity of each statement immediately after it was made. Candidates Vance and Pukita were especially irked by Kasler’s journalism, leading both to attempt a rebuke during the debate and leading Pukita to go on an anti-“fact-check”, anti-press rant in his post-debate presser.) A further portion of the debate was devoted to the question of who would receive the coveted Trump endorsement, with several candidates listing their Trump-related merits in bonafide cover-letter fashion. (Timken is especially guilty of this--a favorite catchphrase of hers is that she put “150,000 miles” on her car as the head of the Ohio GOP campaigning for Trump in 2020.)

The discourse over Trump’s inevitable endorsement was settled by Trump’s (arguably) surprise endorsement of author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance on Friday, March 15th. In Hillbilly Elegy, the wildly successful memoir that made him the unrepresentative and unreliable voice of Appalachia, Vance disavowed Trump in no uncertain terms. In the years since, Vance has pulled a complete one-eighty, proclaiming his regret of his former position and his support for Trump in a number of venues including the March 28th ODC debate. “Of course, I did say some negative things about Donald Trump six years ago,” Vance acknowledged while responding to a question about his endorsement from far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), “but if I was anti-Trump, then his strongest advocate in Congress [Greene] would not be behind me.”

Vance’s journey from a never-Trump pundit to a viable Senate candidate with the Trump stamp of approval is emblematic of the rightward shift taking place within the Republican Party. During the ODC debate, Vance proved his allegiance to Trump with a spate of policy positions that would have been unthinkable--well, maybe not unthinkable, but at least a little shocking--to Elegy-era Vance. “Why have we let our entire country become a drug- and warzone because of the illegal immigration problem in this country?” Vance said during the debate, going on to declare: “We need to finish Trump’s border wall.” As stated above, he also proudly touted an endorsement from conspiracy theorist and Trump devotee Marjorie Taylor Greene. Here, Vance is tapping into a larger trend. The Republican Party’s ongoing rightward movement and adoption of right-wing populist policies has seemingly unlocked something in the state of Ohio--the former bellwether state turns redder every day. Vance’s rapid rebranding mirrors that of our state and of the GOP, and he’s become the symbol for the specific brand of realignment that is not new, but that has become more visible in the years since Trump’s election.

And this realignment pays off. According to the most recent available polling data on the GOP Senate primary election, Josh Mandel--who, by the way, does not believe that there is a constitutional basis for the separation of church and state--is leading the pack, with 28% of respondents expressing support for him. Vance comes in second with 22.6%. (Qualifier: this data comes from the Trafalgar Group, a right-leaning polling firm with an opaque methodology--and the only major firm to show Trump ahead in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election.) Vance’s stock is sure to rise in the weeks ahead given Trump’s recent endorsement; Trump and his ilk are undeniably the tastemakers of this election cycle, a position that was only reaffirmed and reinforced by the ODC Republican debate’s focus on Trump, both in the content of the questions and in the candidates’ collective rhetoric. (And the Trump-spurred rightward shift isn’t reserved for Republicans--it’s been tugging at the Democrats too. For evidence, look no further than Tim Ryan’s latest campaign ad, in which he proclaims that we “can’t afford to be Democrats and Republicans right now. We have to be Americans first.”)

This election is the first Senate election without an incumbent running that Ohio has seen since Trump’s election in 2016. As a result, we are seeing the shifting political trends at work in our state play out in full force, without a likely-winner incumbent to dampen their effect. Ohio’s increasing gravitation towards right-wing populist candidates is mirrored by the rightward movement of J.D. Vance, the formerly anti-Trump Republican who just beat Josh Mandel--Josh Mandel!--in a Trump-alike contest. The March 28th ODC Republican debate featured a slate of candidates all attempting to prove their merits vis-a-vis Trump, a competition arguably encouraged by the ODC’s questions and definitely incited by Ohio’s red-state transformation. The Democratic candidates are also feeling the pull of Ohio’s rightward movement, especially front-runner Tim Ryan. All this culminates in a chaotic primary election in which substantive policy has been largely set aside, and yet so much turns on its result. Right now, all eyes are on Ohio. It’s not the first time we’ve been a harbinger.

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