Is it Miller time in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District?

Max Miller, who worked in the Trump administration, is bringing the national GOP debate over Trumpism to the district

Despite a fiery campaign announcement in late February, Max Miller has maintained a relatively subdued local profile since he launched his primary bid against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), one of 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of impeaching former President Donald Trump after the violent Capitol riot that has since exposed deep divisions within the GOP.

Over the past few months, Miller — who worked as an aide in the Trump administration and was rewarded with an endorsement from the former president immediately after he announced his candidacy — has instead focused considerable attention on courting donors at Mar-a-Lago while sitting for interviews with national right-wing outlets like OANN, Newsmax and Fox News.

But Miller’s challenge is likely to receive a major in-state boost on Saturday evening, when Trump is scheduled to host his first summer rally of the 2022 election cycle at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Northeast Ohio. The former president, who has yet to declare whether he will run for office again, is expected to gin up support for Miller’s fledgling campaign — part of an ongoing effort to take revenge against those in the Republican Party who Trump believes crossed him following his departure from the White House.

Trump’s speech is certain to increase the stakes of an already contentious congressional showdown that has come to embody a widening rift within the Republican Party between those who remain fiercely loyal to the ex-president and others who feel the events of January 6 were a deal-breaker. The outcome will, in many ways, serve as a barometer as to which side holds more sway among voters as speculation swirls over the possibility that Trump will mount a 2024 comeback campaign for the White House.

“It’s going to be a very interesting test case of Trumpism in the Republican Party versus what used to be the establishment of the Republican Party,” said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “Right now, the momentum, the enthusiasm and the money is really on the side of Trumpism.”

Whether Miller is capable of maintaining that energy with a year or so remaining until the primary — and with the boundaries of the electoral map set to be redrawn when Ohio drops a congressional seat next cycle — is also a key factor. But he claims that he is taking nothing for granted. 

“I am going to get out there and meet every single individual within the 16th District, or whatever district it’s going to be when it all is done with redistricting, and earn their vote,” Miller told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “It is not enough for me, and it should not be enough for the voter, just because I have President Trump’s endorsement, to be the anointed one.”

That Miller is eager to swat away suggestions of his privileged status in the race is telling. The 32-year-old Cleveland native and Marine reservist first gained a position on Trump’s 2016 campaign thanks to a family connection — though in fairness, it is unclear how many applicants were vying to join what was then a deeply polarizing presidential bid. Miller, a 2013 graduate of Cleveland State University, earned the job in spite of an arrest record that came under scrutiny during his time serving in the White House as a staffer in the office of personnel and then as the director of advance. Miller worked as a deputy campaign manager on Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

While in Washington, Miller established himself as something of a consummate Trumpworld insider. He developed a close connection with the former president and built a reputation as a fierce and devoted loyalist within Trump’s inner circle, where his political and personal life were occasionally intertwined.

For a time, Miller dated Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s former press secretary and communications director. The couple flaunted their relationship status at a state dinner for the Australian prime minister at the White House in 2019. According to a campaign spokesperson, Miller is now engaged to Emily Moreno, who worked on Trump’s 2020 campaign and is the daughter of Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno, a Senate candidate in Ohio’s increasingly crowded Republican primary.

Miller is the scion of a wealthy Shaker Heights family with deep roots in the city’s political and philanthropic milieu. His grandfather, Sam Miller, a co-chair of Cleveland’s Forest City Enterprises, was a powerbroker whose influence extended well beyond real estate development before his death in 2019. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, the elder Miller is credited with launching the career of Michael White, Cleveland’s second-longest-serving mayor, while using his considerable wealth and political clout to support a number of causes that were personally important to him, including advocating for Israel.

“If you take what we mean when we say ‘Trump country’ and we apply it to this district, I think you’d be pretty close to being on mark,” said David Giffels, the author of Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America. “There are a lot of pick-up trucks in the 16th District.”

But despite Miller’s impressive pedigree, he remains something of an unknown entity in the region. Though early polling from the conservative Club for Growth, which has endorsed him, gave him a nine-point lead over Gonzalez with nearly 40% of the vote among Republican primary voters, 31% of respondents said they were undecided because they were unfamiliar with Miller’s candidacy. 

Few who spoke with JI were aware of Miller before he entered the primary in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District, where Gonzalez, 36, is currently serving his second term. Still, the solidly red district, a predominantly white, working-class, rural enclave including some western suburbs of Cleveland, remains a redoubt of Trumpism — which may give Miller a built-in advantage. 

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) talks during an interview about the annual NFLPA Externship program in Washington on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“If you take what we mean when we say ‘Trump country’ and we apply it to this district, I think you’d be pretty close to being on mark,” said David Giffels, the author of Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America. “There are a lot of pick-up trucks in the 16th District.”

So far, however, Miller’s fundraising suggests that he is benefiting more from out-of-state support, with a preponderance of donations flowing in from Trump’s home base of Florida, according to the most recent filings from the Federal Election Commission.

Miller recently settled in Rocky River, a city on Lake Erie where Gonzalez also lives, as he seeks to establish a presence in the district after four years in Washington. “In a safely red district,” Miller told JI, “I really saw an opportunity to get a stronger conservative leader in who is going to push the America First policies and agenda that President Trump had instilled in this country.”

Under normal circumstances, Gonzalez would be the kind of politician Republican leaders seem eager to embrace. The son of a Cuban immigrant father, the Cleveland native played football at The Ohio State University — garnering widespread renown for a game-winning catch — and was drafted into the NFL in 2007. He played for the Indianapolis Colts for four years as a receiver before signing with the New England Patriots, retiring from football in 2012. 

He earned a business degree from Stanford University and ran for Congress in 2018, winning his primary by more than 10%. Gonzalez ran uncontested in the 2020 primary and, before his impeachment vote, was overwhelmingly popular in his district, even among independents and some Democrats. Despite strong resistance from Trump supporters in the state and nationally, including calls for his resignation from Ohio Republican Party leaders, Gonzalez has defended casting his vote against the former president.

“The reality is the Congress and the vice president were under attack by a mob and the president didn’t step up in my opinion in nearly the right way to calm it down, to stop it,” Gonzalez said in an interview with The Dispatch in late January.

Now, he is facing two primary challengers to his right, including Jonah Schulz, a Cleveland resident and former Republican congressional candidate who described himself as a “true conservative” in a mid-February Twitter announcement. “My RINO opponent Anthony Gonzalez voted to IMPEACH President Trump.” 

Just weeks later, Miller — who is by all accounts the most credible challenger — entered the race. “I’m running for Congress to stand up for Northeast Ohioans,” he said on social media. “They overwhelmingly voted for the America First agenda. But their Congressman betrayed them when he voted to impeach President Trump. I won’t back down. And I’ll never betray them.”

In the interview with JI, Miller said the Capitol attack was “a sad day for this country,” but quickly qualified his remarks. “But I want to make something very clear,” he said. “Nothing that the president did on January 6 and leading up to January 6 is an impeachable offense.”

Miller said he discussed his candidacy with Trump before jumping into the race four months ago. “He said, ‘It’s going to be nasty, are you ready for that?’” Miller recalled. “That was his biggest concern.”

But Miller seems more eager than Gonzalez — whose campaign declined interview requests from JI — to engage in mudslinging. Miller alleges that Gonzalez has been absent from the district throughout his tenure in office. “Anthony has abandoned the community and spends the vast majority of his time in Washington, D.C.,” Miller charged. “It’s troublesome.” 

He also accused the two-term representative of supporting Democratic policies, despite a voting record that put him in line with Trump’s agenda more than 85% of the time.

“You could go over to Israel right now and you could take the most left-leaning Israeli and that individual would not support the Iran nuclear deal,” said Miller. “If that doesn’t speak volumes to what this country is doing in terms of not being an ally to Israel, it is very alarming to me.”

“I don’t know Anthony too well,” Miller said when asked if he agreed with Gonzalez on any issues. “In terms of his policy record, I think it speaks for itself. He voted to keep troops in Syria, which really bothered me. As somebody who is in the military, I truly believe that we need to get out of these endless wars.”

The first-time candidate said he is running for Congress, in large part, so he can work to advance Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Miller puts his Jewish identity, which he says is intimately connected with his strong and unequivocal support for Israel, front and center on his campaign website

“Under the Trump administration, what he was able to accomplish for the State of Israel, he did more in four years than any other president could have ever done in the history of this country, bar none,” Miller said enthusiastically, using the kind of breathless rhetoric he often relies on while discussing the former president. “People said if you move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you’re going to have another intifada. Nothing happened. The Abraham Accords are historic,” he said, referring to the pact that normalized relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

“I mean, you cannot devalue that,” Miller added, “and I think anyone who says different truly doesn’t understand what President Trump and this administration [were] able to accomplish.”

Miller emphasized his vehement opposition to the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that it is against Israel’s interests. “You could go over to Israel right now and you could take the most left-leaning Israeli and that individual would not support the Iran nuclear deal,” said Miller, who harshly criticized President Joe Biden’s Middle East foreign policy approach amid recent violence between Israel and Hamas. “If that doesn’t speak volumes to what this country is doing in terms of not being an ally to Israel, it is very alarming to me.”

“I look at the United States-Israeli relationship as the most important ally that we have, not only geopolitically and strategically, but it’s the only democracy in the Middle East,” Miller told JI. “We need to hold that to be true. They are just like we are. They value freedom of religion and the system of values and liberty and free elections. There are not too many countries, if any, over in the Middle East right now that have that, and it’s extremely important that we need to remain strong with Israel in lockstep and support them in any way that we can.”

Miller also vociferously rejected the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel as antisemitic. “This is the exact type of rhetoric that we’re seeing from the left right now that we need to push back [on],” said Miller, who was appointed by Trump to the board of trustees of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “This is exactly why I’m going to Congress to fight things like this and to shut these things down. I obviously have an emotional connection.”

Miller’s passion for Middle East foreign policy runs in the family: His uncle is Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former longtime Middle East analyst in the State Department as well as a peace negotiator. 

Not that they seem to agree on much when it comes to geopolitics in the region. “I do have a great relationship with my uncle Aaron. I think he’s a wonderful guy, but I think we have a fundamental disagreement,” Miller said without going into specifics. “Look, I understand that he is a Middle East foreign policy expert and one of the top in the country, if not the world, but we do have fundamental disagreements.”

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (center) visits Israel in August 2019.

Aaron David Miller, for his part, declined to weigh in when asked for comment about his nephew’s bid for public office. “Love my sibs and their kids,” he told JI in a brief email. “But I never mix family and politics.”

Miller suggested that he will be a stronger advocate for Israel than Gonzalez if he is elected. 

“There’s a lot of people in Congress, and I think Anthony is one of them, who say they’re pro-Israel. You can be pro-Israel, but are you going to be a champion for Israel? That’s what I boil it down to,” Miller said, adding: “When it really matters, and if something is going to happen to that country, are you going to go and fight for it, or are you just going to go be pro-Israel on paper? I’m telling you that I’m going to be a champion for the State of Israel.”

Boris Epshteyn, a political commentator and former Trump advisor who has donated to Miller’s campaign, agreed with that self-assessment. “I’m proud to have worked with Max Miller and am fully confident that once elected to Congress, Max will continue to be a champion of [former] President Trump’s MAGA policies and a staunch supporter of the State of Israel,” he said in a text message to JI.

Still, a number of Jewish community members and pro-Israel advocates in Cleveland and the surrounding area are standing by Gonzalez. 

“He showcases to us that he takes our community very seriously,” said Howie Beigelman, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities. “On the record side,” Beigelman added, “because he has a record to run on at this point, he’s been there on the things we’ve asked him for.”

Gonzalez visited Israel in 2019 on a trip sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation and has made clear to Jewish leaders in the Cleveland area that he is strongly devoted to safeguarding the U.S.-Israel relationship, according to Beigelman, who characterized the congressman’s commitment to the Jewish state as “from the heart.”

Beigelman, whose organization represents Ohio’s eight Jewish Federations as well as 150 affiliated nonprofit agencies throughout the state, told JI he suspects that many Jewish community members will remain loyal to Gonzalez in the upcoming primary even as Miller makes inroads in the district, which is home to a small but politically engaged cohort of Jewish constituents. “I feel people will like his chutzpah, of being independent,” Beigelman said of the congressman’s impeachment vote. “I think there are plenty of people in our community who value that.”

“He has demonstrated the kind of courage that I want all the representatives to demonstrate,” said Rita Schaner, a Canton resident who is active in Jewish causes, recalling a meeting with the congressman before the recent impeachment trial. “I was impressed with him then. I am more impressed with him now, and I have told his aides that I will actively work and encourage my friends who live in the district to vote for him.”

“Miller I know nothing about, OK?” Schaner added. “Nothing.” 

Rob Zimmerman, a Shaker Heights city councilmember and pro-Israel activist, said he had never heard of Miller either, but remains concerned that Trump’s imprimatur will give the rookie candidate an edge in the upcoming primary. Zimmerman told JI he is now working to boost Gonzalez, raising money for the embattled incumbent along with Democrats and Republicans. “ I feel very strongly in country over party,” he said.

Such principled sentiments suggest that Gonzalez may have more allies than is readily apparent as Miller enters the scene with significant momentum.

“Congressman Gonzalez has fought to provide greater support for Holocaust survivors, has been a strong ally in the fight against antisemitism and has consistently supported a close relationship between the United States and Israel,” said Jason Wuliger, a pro-Israel advocate in the Cleveland area. “When you have a congressman like that, you stand by him.”

Even a family member of Miller’s expressed optimism that the neophyte Republican challenger would meet some resistance in his effort to overthrow Gonzalez. 

“I would hope that any decent person who is a part of the community he’s from would feel a moral obligation to repudiate him and all the lunatics like him — from Trump on down — in the strongest possible terms,” said Adam Ratner, a distant cousin of Miller’s who lives in New York City and did not hesitate to offer his views on the record in an email exchange with JI.

While Miller acknowledges the “target of opportunity that came up with the vote for impeachment,” he insists that his candidacy is about more than simply enacting payback on behalf of Trump. 

“I’m sick of seeing people like Congressman Gonzalez who say they’re going to do one thing and turn their back and do another and cozy up to these dinner parties and the social elites of Washington, D.C., New York and California,” Miller declared. “And they’re afraid to really stand up for the people, so instead what they do is they stand up for themselves.”

Miller is running, above all, “to serve the constituents of the 16th District and represent their interests,” he averred, “not my own.”

“That’s truly what I want to do.”

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