Despite fixation on loyalty, Trump criticism not uncommon among Republican Ohio U.S. Senate candidates

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Five years ago, J.D. Vance called Donald Trump “reprehensible,” said other Republicans who gave him cover were “shameful,” and even floated on National Public Radio that he may vote for Hillary Clinton.

This week, Vance said he regrets what he said, and is hoping Trump will endorse him in next May’s Republican U.S. Senate primary in Ohio.

In 2016, Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno called Trump a “lunatic,” and interrupted a 2019 TV interviewer to emphasize he wasn’t a Trump supporter.

Now, his U.S. Senate campaign website declares Trump to have had “the most positive impact of any president since Ronald Reagan,” and touts the former president’s clashes with Big Tech and China.

The dynamic in the early days of the GOP Senate race has been well-documented – the candidates are angling for Trump’s support, as well as the support of Trump’s voters as they try to claim the nomination to succeed outgoing Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

But the flip side of that purity test is that candidates are as quick to point fingers at each other as they are to emphasize their own Trump bona fides. And the candidates themselves have provided each other with plenty of material, which is true of no one more than Vance.

That leaves voters to try to figure out what the candidates really think as Trump continues to be the defining force in the Republican Party even after losing the November election.

“I think a lot of the criticisms are frankly coming from phonies who themselves have a lot of baggage when it comes to their past Trump criticisms,” Vance said in an interview with cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer. “They realize I’m a threat in this race, and they want to focus on what I said five years ago, because they realize they don’t have a lot to say about the problems of Trump voters today.”

Here’s a roundup of the best arguments that Vance and the other candidates –Moreno, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken, former State Treasurer Josh Mandel and Cleveland businessman Mike Gibbons – may make against each other.

Vance, the latest entry into the race, has the richest background to mine for anti-Trump statements.

His 2016 memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” emerged as a popular text among the literary set to explain Trump’s appeal among white working-class voters. While promoting his book, Vance made clear that he found Trump to be personally repugnant and racially divisive.

During an August 2016 appearance on NPR, he joked he might write in his dog’s name over Trump, and said he entertained voting for Hillary Clinton before settling on a third-party conservative candidate, Evan McMullin.

“I think that I’m going to vote third party because I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place,” Vance said.

On Twitter, in a post he since has deleted, Vance said on Oct. 9, 2016 that Trump “makes people I care about afraid. Muslims, immigrants. etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible.”

In the National Review, a conservative, generally anti-Trump publication, Vance wrote in August 2016 about the need for Republicans to adopt a broader appeal on racial issues by acknowledging racial disparities in policing and “racist” housing policy. He said the GOP could then propose conservative solutions to those problems. He made similar comments about racist housing policies during a June 2017 speech at the Cleveland Fed.

“In nominating Trump, Republicans have come full circle: The party of Lincoln has become the party of the white man. And that man has become extremely cynical,” Vance wrote in the National Review article.

Vance now says he gradually came around to Trump, overcoming his skepticism that Trump wouldn’t follow through for working-class communities. Vance is styling his campaign around economic populism – deviating from conservative orthodoxy by expressing support for raising taxes on corporations, tighter regulations on Big Tech platforms and tariffs on foreign manufacturers. His stance on these issues led Steve Bannon, a key figure in Trump’s political orbit, to defend Vance on Thursday after Mandel bashed Vance as a “chameleon” while appearing on Bannon’s podcast.

“There’s no secret that I changed my mind on the guy,” Vance said on Thursday. “I thought he would not deliver for the people that I care about. Four years later, it’s hard to say he hasn’t made the lives of the people I care about better, and that’s all I really care about.”

Asked about his past concerns about Trump sowing racial division, Vance, who has taken to the popular Republican cause of beating up on “critical racial theory” while calling the focus on systemic racism a “distraction,” Vance said Trump made inroads with minority voters in the 2020 election.

“I think the president did better than any Republican candidate in my lifetime with black male voters and Hispanics, and it’s really hard to say that the president was racially divisive,” he said.

As a businessman who hasn’t often been asked to weigh in on political issues publicly, Moreno hasn’t commented extensively on Trump.

But after he got in the Senate race this year, NBC News reported on an email Moreno sent to a Republican fundraiser about Trump in March 2016, referring to Trump as a “lunatic.” The fundraiser now works for Timken.

Moreno, a GOP donor, was supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who ended up losing to Trump in the Republican presidential primary.

“I am a hard core true believer in the party! But … If Donald Trump is nominated, I will consider that a hostile take over and no longer associate myself with THAT, new GOP,” Moreno wrote in an exchange in March 2016, according to NBC News.

“I completely get the position Reince is in and he is doing the best he can with a lunatic invading the party,” Moreno said, referring to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “In retrospect, more could/should have been done early, but I don’t blame anyone for that. Hindsight is always 20/20.”

A 2019 interview with WKYC also re-emerged in which a viewer asked Moreno why he supports Trump.

Moreno corrected the questioner, saying his daughter, Emily, worked for the Trump campaign.

“She’s free to do that. We have a vigorous debate at home about politics, and my daughter works at the Trump campaign. It doesn’t mean I support the Trump campaign.”

Moreno laughed, adding: “Different story. You can interview my daughter if you like.”

As a Senate candidate, Moreno has changed his tune. As he’s angled for a Trump endorsement, he has a stable of Trump World figures supporting him, including former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

Moreno posed for a photo with Trump during a campaign appearance in Lorain County in June, and speaking in April from the perspective as an immigrant himself, said Trump was “100% right” on the issue.

“Donald J. Trump had the most positive impact of any president since Ronald Reagan,” his website reads under the “What I Believe” section. “He stood up to everyone who rigged the system against outsiders, and he fought for Americans every step of the way and yet accomplished amazing achievements for the American people. We need to protect his victories.”

Explaining the 2016 email, Moreno’s campaign manager, Parker Briden, said Moreno was supporting a different candidate at the time. Moreno ended up giving more than $50,000 to Republican causes in that election, he said.

“He was obviously fired up and disappointed in the moment years ago, but he supported Donald Trump and is fired up for his agenda,” Briden said.

As for the 2019 interview, Briden said: “Bernie is enormously proud of the work his daughter did for President Trump. He did not want to overshadow her professional work with any comments that made it seem like she got her position for any reason than her own talent and dedication.”

A major Ohio GOP donor installed by Trump as leader of the Ohio Republican Party in January 2017, Timken was adept at stating the pro-Trump line and batting down critical questions about the former president and other Republicans.

But following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Ohio Republican Party changed its website to remove Trump’s photo, two weeks before Trump actually left office.

Following the incident, state and party leaders briefly evaluated putting some daylight between themselves and Trump. That development that didn’t last long.

In a late January interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer about the future direction of the Republican Party, Timken said there was more to the GOP than Trump: “It’s never just about one candidate, it’s about what we rally around and our principles and at the end of the day what we can deliver,” she said.

When asked during the same interview about Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the Rocky River Republican who voted to impeach Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 riot, Timken politely disagreed with his decision to impeach Trump.

“He’s my congressman. I think he’s been a very effective legislator. I don’t know if I would have voted the way he did [on impeaching Trump]. I think he’s spending some time explaining to folks his vote, and I think he’s got a rational reason why he voted that way. I think he’s an effective legislator, and he’s a very good person,” she said.

Three months later, after getting into the Senate race, she called for him to resign from office.

“President Trump is the leader of our Party and we must have conservative leaders committed to the team if we are going to keep Ohio red and win back majorities in the U.S. House and Senate in 2022,” Timken said in her statement.

Although she failed to get a swift endorsement in the race as she’d hoped, Timken has continued to paint herself as Trump’s biggest ally in Ohio, and even distributed scorecards at Trump’s Lorain County rally in June attacking other candidates in the race for being insufficiently pro-Trump.

“Jane Timken is the only true America First candidate in the race who, unlike her opponents, doesn’t need to overcompensate for a record of bashing President Trump, not voting for President Trump, or sitting on the sidelines during his Presidency,” said Mandi Merritt, a Timken spokesperson. “Jane fought in the trenches over the last five years, putting 150,000 miles on her car crisscrossing Ohio to deliver a resounding victory for President Trump in 2020 and fighting for his winning policies – a fight she will continue in the U.S. Senate.”

Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland businessman and wealthy GOP donor, has what he’s referred to as a pro-Trump “business card,” serving as a Trump campaign finance chairman in Ohio for him in 2016 when many other elements of the state GOP were still loyal to then-Gov. John Kasich.

But Gibbons has said there are things about Trump’s personality that turn him off. In 2018, he called Trump “not my style,” and in a May 2021 Jewish Insider interview, distinguished his personal political views from Trump’s while also saying he agreed with the moves Trump made as president.

“I am a Trump supporter, but I’m not into the cult of personality. If he wouldn’t have done what he did when he was in there, I wouldn’t have supported him. It’s not about Donald Trump, it’s about America,” Gibbons told Jewish Insider.

“The measuring stick that any politician should be judged on is what they say they will do when they are running for office, and then what they end up doing once elected,” said Wes Farno, a senior adviser to the Gibbons campaign. “Using that as a guide- there can be no rational argument not to be supportive of President Donald Trump. That’s why Mike was proud to support candidate and then President Trump with his resources, time and vote. His America First agenda is the reason he won Ohio and is exactly what Mike will fight for as Ohio’s next U.S. Senator.”

Unlike other major candidates, Mandel has no public history of criticizing or distancing himself from Trump. Although he supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential election, Mandel allowed his campaign aides to work for Trump’s Ohio campaign during a time when others in the Ohio GOP, tightly aligned with Kasich, were freezing them out. Some media outlets noted, however, that Mandel and other Ohio Republicans avoided mentioning Trump by name during a speech at the July 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Mandel affirmed his support for Trump following the October 2016 release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that showed Trump bragging about sexual assault, a move that set him apart from other Ohio Republicans. Portman, now-Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Attorney General Dave Yost all strongly disavowed Trump — in what subsequently emerged as a key litmus test for Trump loyalty.

But Mandel also kept a low profile following the November 2016 election, and then dropped completely out of the public eye after he abruptly quit the U.S. Senate primary in January 2018.

He re-emerged in February, re-activating his deleted social media accounts, saying he was inspired to run for Senate by the January impeachment effort over the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.

Mandel now refers to himself as “Trump’s number one ally in Ohio,” a superlative claim that can’t be objectively evaluated. He has tried to position himself as closely as possible to Trump on every issue, pulling the rest of the field rightward.

Timken’s campaign argues he was AWOL for Trump, dropping out of the public eye during his presidency. Mandel has said he worked behind the scenes to boost Trump’s candidacy – saying he helped coordinate more than $500,000 in donations to Trump from others, and signed on to a letter with 700 other veterans defending Trump in September 2020.

“Josh Mandel was the first statewide elected official to support Donald Trump,” said Mandel Campaign Manager Scott Guthrie. “In 2016 and the 2020 re-election, Josh Mandel stood proudly, publicly, and unwaveringly with Donald J. Trump.”

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