race to watch

An early test of Trump’s clout in Ohio special election

Trump-backed coal lobbyist Mike Carey leads the GOP field, but in a crowded, off-year primary, will results be more than just statistical noise?

Courtesy

Mike Carey/Jeff LaRe

In some ways, the special election next Tuesday in Ohio’s deep-red 15th Congressional District has come to be viewed as an early test of former President Donald Trump’s prevailing influence within the GOP.

The crowded Republican primary in the suburbs of southern Columbus is pitting a Trump-backed former energy lobbyist, Mike Carey, against Jeff LaRe, a state legislator endorsed by the moderate former incumbent, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), who vacated his seat in mid-May to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

Media reports are billing the race as a matchup between the Trump-aligned faction of the GOP and its establishment wing — one that could have implications in the 2022 midterms as the former president, who has yet to announce whether he will run again for a second term, prepares to seek vengeance against the handful of House Republicans who voted to impeach him last February after the violent Capitol riot.

The Trump wing so far appears to have the edge, even as the former president suffered a stinging rebuke last night in Texas’s 6th Congressional District runoff. Susan Wright, a Republican primary candidate vying to succeed her late husband with an endorsement from Trump, was defeated by state Rep. Jake Ellzey in a matchup that had also been characterized as a barometer of the former president’s political clout. 

The 15th district race represents the next case study. Carey, a 50-year-old former executive at American Consolidated Natural Resources, has raked in more than $460,000 since May, outraising every candidate in the field, according to filings from the Federal Election Commission. Meanwhile, a June poll commissioned by Carey’s campaign put him well ahead of his opponents even with just 20% of the vote — a number that jumped to 52% when voters were informed of Trump’s endorsement.

“Donald Trump is the Republican Party in the 15th Congressional District,” Carey boasted in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, “and anybody who thinks otherwise is just — they’re not talking to the voters that I’m talking to.”

LaRe, who placed second in Carey’s poll — the only publicly available survey on the race — made sure to note that he agreed with Trump’s policies in an interview with JI earlier this month, mindful not to alienate supporters of the former president who are likely to turn out on Election Day. But the 45-year-old state lawmaker, a former deputy sheriff and a longtime security industry executive at the Whitestone Group, was eager to emphasize that he is running his own race.

“I’m certainly honored to have the endorsement and support of Steve Stivers, but at the end of the day, I’m Jeff LaRe,” said the congressional hopeful, whose candidacy has been buoyed by hundreds of thousands of dollars left over from Stivers’s campaign warchest. LaRe has otherwise raised approximately $240,000 through mid-July. “There are real people in this race, and I think that’s what it comes down to, is getting my message out, letting people know who I am and what I stand for,” he told JI. “I mean, there’s only one Steve Stivers and there’s only one Donald Trump.”

Still, Trump seems to exert more sway over GOP voters in the district. Experts who spoke with JI agree that Carey is operating at an advantage as he heads into the final stretch, despite his status as a first-time congressional candidate with low name recognition. But with 11 Republicans angling for the seat, the primary —  whose victor will be all but assured safe passage in the general election — has nevertheless proven difficult to forecast.

“It’s an odd contest to have to try to handicap,” said Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University, who believes that Carey and LaRe are leading the pack. But the primary may be more competitive than is immediately apparent, he adds, because of the wide assortment of candidates, none of whom are particularly well-known, all jockeying for support during an off-cycle special election in the dog days of summer — when turnout is expected to be significantly lower than usual.

The race hasn’t predictably unfolded along intraparty lines, either, suggesting that the Republican voting share could be parceled out among several candidates, with whomever prevails earning only a small plurality in the winner-take-all primary. Notably, some prominent out-of-state Republicans wading into the open-seat contest have clearly indicated that they won’t be falling in line behind Carey, who appears to have earned his high-profile endorsement thanks in part to a relationship with Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager.

While Carey earned the backing of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), an ardent Trump supporter, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is endorsing Ron Hood, a former Ohio state representative. The Kentucky senator’s father, former Texas congressman and prominent libertarian Ron Paul, endorsed Hood in 2010 when he ran for a House seat in Ohio’s 18th district.

Having pulled in just $156,000, Hood’s campaign is being aggressively promoted by outside spending from a political action committee affiliated with Rand Paul. The libertarian Protect Freedom PAC has put up a staggering $640,000 in support of Hood, and on Monday, FEC filings revealed that the Conservative Outsider PAC — which has previously received funding from Protect Freedom — spent nearly $220,000 on negative TV ads targeting Carey.

Further unsettling the race, Debbie Meadows — the conservative activist who is married to Trump’s former White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows — has thrown her weight behind Ruth Edmonds, a Black minister and former Columbus NAACP president. 

Though Edmonds has only raised $162,000, she expressed confidence about her prospects in a recent statement to JI. “I am humbled from the outpouring of support from the thousands of like-minded Patriots who want to end the Left’s lie on race and send someone to Washington who [can] effectively challenge and defeat AOC and Nancy Pelosi,” she said, using a popular shorthand for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

The conflicting endorsements — and significant overlapping expenditures — seem to have caused tension within Trump’s ranks. Right Women PAC, which is founded by Meadows and has supported such Trumpian provocateurs as Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), seems to have recently scrubbed its social media accounts of pro-Edmonds content, though an endorsement remains on its website. (Right Women PAC did not respond to a request for comment regarding the discrepancy.)

Still other candidates have complicated the dynamics of the jam-packed race, threatening to peel support from Trump’s pick. Bob Peterson, an Ohio state senator who has raised an impressive $455,000, closely trailing Carey, while personally loaning his campaign an extra $100,000, picked up an endorsement from Ohio Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group in Columbus. The seal of approval is likely to be meaningful among evangelical voters in the district. 

And state Sen. Stephanie Kunze has earned backing from the Franklin County Republican Party — suggesting that party leaders are divided at the local level, even as both Stivers and Trump have made their preferences known.

Trump, who remains popular in Ohio, seems at least partially invested in ensuring voters are aware of his endorsement in the special election. He invited Carey to address the crowd at a late-June rally in the Buckeye State — albeit outside of the district — and earlier this month spoke at a telephone town hall hosted by Carey, who, for his part, is playing up support from the former president on his campaign website and in advertising.

On Tuesday, Trump released a statement regarding his endorsement. “Numerous candidates in the Great State of Ohio, running in Congressional District 15, are saying that I am supporting them, when in actuality, I don’t know them, and don’t even know who they are,” the former president said. “But I do know who Mike Carey is—I know a lot about him, and it is all good. Mike Carey is the only one who has my Endorsement and he’s the one I feel will do the best job for Ohio, and for the United States. Please vote for Mike Carey next Tuesday, and let there be no further doubt who I have Endorsed!”

In conversation with JI, the Trump-backed Republican said he is looking favorably at his odds. “If I had to have one endorsement in this race, definitely President Trump’s endorsement is the best,” Carey posited, while emphasizing that the former president’s nod isn’t a license for complacency.

“The president called me last night, and he said, ‘Mike, you gotta run like you’re one point down,’ and I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m running like I’m 10 points down,’” Carey elaborated. “This is a special election and it’s about voter turnout and it’s about people coming to the polls. You know, most people on the 3rd of August aren’t really thinking of an election. So you really gotta just motivate the people.”

The Ohio-born former coal lobbyist, whom Politico once described as “a one-man wrecking ball for Democrats who have strayed too far green for voters’ liking,” said he decided to run for office out of a conviction that his policy experience and negotiating skills would be better wielded within the halls of Congress. “The one thing I’ve seen over the last few years is that Republicans in many cases seem to have lost their way,” he told JI. “I think that’s partially because you have career politicians that continually seek to go to elected office.”

Casting himself as a fiscal conservative, Carey harkened back to the Contract with America, the legislative agenda put forth by the GOP in the 1994 midterms. “We simply laid out these are the things that we as Republicans will do if you give us control of the House,” he recalled. “I would advocate that we need to do that again. I support a balanced budget amendment. I think it’s very important. I think we wouldn’t have the issues that we have today if the Senate had approved the balanced budget that the House passed back in 1995.”

“People are tired of looking at the crisis that we have at the border, not only the humanitarian crisis but the drug crisis that we’re seeing coming into this country,” Carey added, rattling off a list of issues he said voters have brought up on the trail. “I think people are a little bit fed up of what they’re seeing from the liberals in Congress, with the new Green Deal and the bloated infrastructure package that is just completely all out of sorts.”

LaRe hewed to similar talking points in the interview with JI, though he was quick to position himself first and foremost as a public safety advocate given his career in private security contracting. “When I look at what’s going on not only here in Ohio but across our country, it’s concerning,” he said, “and it really comes down to safety for me.”

“When people are destructive and violent, we all suffer as a community, and this mindset of defunding the police is the exact opposite approach of what we need right now,” LaRe said, adding: “When we want to talk about police reform, there’s certainly areas for improvement, but my concern is that we’re not going to be able to attract the men and women that we want in that profession unless we give them the support that they so desperately need right now.”

The two candidates, who refrained from directly criticizing one another, both cast themselves as outsiders in no way representative of the much-maligned “career politician.” They also both extolled Trump’s “America first” agenda while warning of the dangers of critical race theory, which has become something of right-wing boogeyman in recent months.

“Critical race theory being taught in our schools is a big issue, and certainly, I think, this whole cancel culture that you’re seeing just across the country,” said Carey. “The whole decision by Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank — that is just insane. This anti-Israel decision just sets a very dangerous standard,” he added. “I want to make sure that nobody eats Ben & Jerry’s ice cream anywhere near me.”

Carey expressed an affinity for Israel that he credits in large part to his experience growing up in a Catholic and Jewish home during the first 10 years of his childhood, while also attending Jewish day school. “I learned to respect the Jewish culture and the religion, and I think that’s why you’re going to find that I am so committed to these Israeli issues and committed to Israel, because it was one of the founding building blocks of my life,” he said. “These are very personal issues.”

“With this rise of antisemitism and the ridiculous boycotting,” he added, “the prime minister and Israel need our support now more than ever.”

The GOP contender vowed to build on the Trump administration’s Middle East foreign policy agenda, which included moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, exiting the Iran nuclear deal and brokering the Abraham Accords between Israel and a number of Arab nations. He argued that voters in the 15th district would be hard-pressed to find “any better friend to Israel than me,” notwithstanding an admission that he has never visited the Jewish state. “I think people need to understand that if you want a fighter who’s going to go to D.C. and advocate on the issues of Israel,” he said, “I’m the best candidate suited in this race to do that.”

LaRe, for his part, also touted his support for Israel, despite being significantly less boastful than his opponent, calling for an expansion of the Abraham Accords while denouncing Iran. “The Biden administration and Nancy Pelosi, the fact that they would even consider trusting Iran is absolutely absurd,” he charged. “We’ve got to do everything we possibly can to make sure that they don’t have nuclear capabilities.”

“You’ll hear people say, you know, we’re not the world’s police, but we need to support Israel and their fight against terrorism,” he said, arguing that international conflicts can have ripple effects on the domestic front. “In my position as an executive in the security industry, oftentimes we work with the Jewish community because the things that happen in Israel or overseas,” he added, “affect the Jewish community right here at home.”

The Jewish community in the district, which makes up a population of 4,500, according to a definitive 2014 survey, doesn’t appear to be rallying behind one particular candidate — underscoring the primary’s somewhat fractured state. Still, observers say this dynamic exists because most of the viable contenders in the expansive field have all earned positive reviews from Jewish activists.

Brad Kastan, a Jewish leader and pro-Israel advocate in Columbus, is familiar with the candidates’ outreach and backgrounds as they pertain to the Jewish community. Kunze and Peterson, he noted, have both traveled to Israel “and been very helpful to the central Ohio Jewish community on many fronts.” Edmonds “has gone out of her way to reach out to the community,” he added, noting that she recently attended Shabbat services at a Columbus synagogue. “Nearly all of the candidates have met with AIPAC staff and lay leaders and have very strong pro-Israel views,” said Kastan, a co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Columbus.

“It’s a bumper crop of great candidates who know our community issues and have worked with our community’s leaders,” said Howie Beigelman, the executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Jewish Communities, which represents the state’s eight Jewish federations. 

Unlike the upcoming Democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th congressional district, where the sizable Jewish community is coalescing behind one candidate who has emerged as the clear pro-Israel favorite, Jewish voters to the south largely aren’t choosing sides. Justin Shaw, the director of Jewish community relations at the nonprofit organization JewishColumbus, said he has heard of a number of Jewish Republicans who are donating to more than one candidate. 

“Wherever we land, we’re going to be in a good position from a Jewish community perspective,” he told JI.

Whether the winner will be Carey, LaRe or another candidate altogether may point to the direction of the Republican Party in future elections, as Trump’s will is put to the test. But because of the mitigating circumstances of the somewhat low-profile race, experts advised against overinterpretation. 

“There might be some tea leaves, but I would be a bit cautious in reading too much into the results,” Nathaniel Swigger, an associate professor of political science at The Ohio State University at Newark, told JI. “If one of the candidates wins in a landslide that might tell us something,” he added, “but anything short of that really could just indicate a bunch of statistical noise.”

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