WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — The lone Republican moderate at a U.S. Senate candidate forum in Ohio on Sunday said at one point he felt “like a Browns fan in Pittsburgh Stadium.”
The crowd of about 950 at the evangelical Genoa Baptist Church in the northern suburbs of Columbus never quite booed Matt Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Indians, but they didn't embrace him either.
It was the first time all the major candidates to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Rob Portman were on the stage together. They were Dolan, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, former Republican Party chair Jane Timken, author JD Vance and Cleveland businesspeople Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno.
Dolan said he would have supported certifying the 2020 presidential election, calling it the only option under the U.S. Constitution; favors an anti-LGBT discrimination bill, because it's good for business; and backs the $1 trillion infrastructure bill pending in Congress.
“I don’t know how you can say you’re fighting for Ohio if you wouldn’t vote for this bill,” he said, arguing it would return gas tax money to the state, repair a key bridge and bring needed broadband in Appalachia.
The other five candidates balked — though a bipartisan deal on the legislation was largely the handiwork of Portman — calling the bill crazy, a disaster and a complete boondoggle. All said they would accept Portman's endorsement, though.
Mandel reiterated his position, to applause, that the 2020 election was stolen from incumbent Donald Trump, which is untrue. Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, found no evidence of widespread election fraud. Trump’s allegations of massive voting fraud also have been dismissed by a succession of judges and refuted by state election officials and an arm of his own administration’s Homeland Security Department.
Mandel, in answer to a question on the biggest threat facing schoolkids, ventured into schools' role teaching values, saying, “My personal feeling is, there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.”
He said he would bring the “steel spine” of a U.S. Marine veteran to Washington, if elected — drawing one of the evening's few direct attacks from Moreno.
“I loved your steel spine, which is why I supported you in 2012,” Moreno said. “But where was it last summer? When I was getting death threats, I was speaking out against the lockdown. That’s the difference. When you weren’t running for office, what were you doing?”
Vance, author of the book “Hillbilly Elegy,” named households without fathers as the biggest hurdle facing American children and said grandparents, like his own, who have had to raise the children of families harmed by the opioid crisis should be given the same help afforded foster parents to keep their families together.
“We need to defend the people who are actually standing up and taking care of all these kids who have been orphaned by this problem,” he said. A long-time gap exists in Ohio between state payments to nonlicensed relatives who take custody of children and to licensed foster care parents, who typically receive much higher amounts.
Timken, the only woman in the field, spoke often from the perspective of a mother, including during a discussion of accommodating transgender students in school restrooms and sports. “I’m a mom, not a ‘birthing person,’” she said.
She also touted her ties to Trump, who has not endorsed in the race. “I am the only true America First, grassroots candidate in this race that can win this primary, unite the party and take on the radical left’s agenda,” she said.
Gibbons said he would bring a businessman's acumen to Washington, while pledging he would not run for reelection if elected. To the question of his small campaign warchest, Gibbons said he would be able to get the money he needed.
“I’ll raise as much money as I need,” he said. “If I can’t raise it, I’ll put it in. I believe you put your money where your mouth is.” He said he also has donated to 73 individual school board candidates this year, as conservative candidates seek to take over boards across the nation.
At the end of the forum, sponsored by the Center for Christian Virtue’s American Leadership Forum, moderator Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host and author, tried to extract a promise from the candidates that they would refuse to participate in any debate against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, should he win his party's primary, in which media outlets or reporters he dubbed liberal were sponsors or panelists.
“Had my friends in the legacy media been here, you would have been asked about Jan. 6., and then Jan. 6 again... which was terrible,” Hewitt said, to laughter from the crowd. “But then you would have been asked about Donald Trump's role in the events of Jan. 6.” No questions on either subject were asked Sunday.
Most candidates avoided direct answers to the debate question —with Mandel saying he had “no desire to have a bunch of liberals moderating” any debate against Ryan, and Vance saying he would demand fair moderators but wants to take on Ryan for insulting his book.
Both Gibbons and Moreno said they did not fear taking Ryan on in whatever setting.
“I've been dreaming of debating Tim Ryan pretty much my whole adult life," Gibbons said.
“In terms of a debate with liberal journalists, let's go,” Moreno said. “You know what, because we're going to be down in D.C. You think it's going to be like being in Columbus, where we have a supermajority? We're going to have to go against Bernie Sanders and AOC and those crazy left loonies.”
A Republican Senate seventh candidate, tech executive Mark Pukita, is fighting the event’s sponsors over being excluded.
The story has been corrected to fix a typo in the Hewitt quote.