CHILLICOTHE, Ohio ― Ohio State Sen. Bob Peterson (R), one of 11 candidates running to succeed recently retired Rep. Steve Stivers in a special Republican primary on Tuesday, comes out of conservative central casting.
An eighth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Washington Court House who won his seat in the legislature during the 2010 Tea Party wave, Peterson has a near perfect voting score from the American Conservative Union and the endorsement of the influential anti-abortion group, Ohio Right to Life.
When Peterson spoke to a group of supporters at a restaurant on Wednesday evening, he had the air of a smiley, small-government crusader in the mold of Mike Pence ― albeit with more scars from farming accidents.
The freedom to start a business and pursue a personal “dream” is “what separates America from the rest of the world,” Peterson said. “That’s not what I see coming out of Washington, D.C., right now.”
The challenge for Peterson and other top competitors like state Rep. Jeff LaRe (a suburbanite backed by Stivers) and ultra-right wing former state Rep. Ron Hood, who is backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is that they lack the most coveted endorsement in the Republican Party: that of former President Donald Trump.
You see competing factions for the future direction of their party.
Kevin Spiker, Ohio University
Trump and his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have instead endorsed coal industry lobbyist Mike Carey. Trump’s super PAC, Make America Great Again Action, has poured more than $400,000 into TV ads and other paid communications on Carey’s behalf.
There has been no independent public polling in the race for the GOP nomination in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, a solid Republican seat that stretches from Columbus’s southern suburbs through farm country to the edge of Appalachia. And the anticipated low level of turnout is liable to scramble the best of prognostications.
Regardless of the outcome, most observers agree that the race is another test of how much influence Trump retains in Republican primaries.
“It’s going to be a measurement of the value of Donald Trump’s endorsement,” said Jeff Fix, chairman of the suburban Fairfield County Republican Party, which has endorsed LaRe.
Although the lion’s share of press coverage on Tuesday’s primaries has gone to the internecine Democratic Party battle in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District between Nina Turner and Shontel Brown, the outcome of the Republican primary in Ohio’s 15th is likely to have national implications that are just as significant.
“The race will tell you something about the senatorial primary in nine and a half months,” said Terry Casey, a Columbus-based Republican strategist.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is due to retire when his term ends in 2022 and a host of Republican candidates are already competing to succeed him, including former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, and author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance.
In that race, Trump’s reach is on trial in even starker ways. Vance faces skepticism for criticizing Trump in 2016, though he has since warmed to the former president and is casting himself as the most faithful tribune of Trumpian populism.
And while Timken’s support for Trump during her tenure as party chair reportedly almost snagged her Trump’s endorsement, Mandel has attacked her for initially defending moderate Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s vote to impeach Trump in January. (Timken has subsequently joined calls for Gonzalez to resign.)
If Carey wins on Tuesday, it would suggest that Trump is still a kingmaker in Republican primaries in Ohio — and his victory would be a poor omen for Vance in particular.
Ohio state Rep. Mark Johnson (R), who attended the Wednesday event in support of Peterson and is backing Timken in the Senate race, predicted that Vance’s opposition to Trump in 2016 is “probably going to be his demise.”
But Trump’s involvement in a congressional race doesn’t come without risk for him: If the candidate he is backing loses, it diminishes the perceived weight of his endorsement.
The recent result in a special election in Texas’ 6th Congressional District demonstrated just that. On July 27, Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) defeated Susan Wright, who was endorsed by Trump, in a runoff election to fill the seat left vacant when Wright’s husband, Rep. Ron Wright, died.
Susan Wright got the most votes in the first round of the state’s nonpartisan, top-two primary. The Club for Growth, a hardline economic libertarian Republican group that has grown increasingly aligned with the Trump wing of the party in recent years, spent $1.1 million buttressing her.
But because it was a nonpartisan primary in which voters of all stripes could vote, Ellzey appears to have prevailed with help from Democrats in the suburban Dallas district who were eager to reject Trump’s favorite.
Similar dynamics could affect the outcome in Ohio’s 15th, since Ohio is an open primary state where voters registered with one party can cast votes in another party’s primary.
Stivers won the seat in 2020 with more than 63% of the vote — but Trump got a more modest 56% of the vote, suggesting that a chunk of moderate Republicans in the Columbus suburbs cast ballots for then-candidate Joe Biden while sticking with the GOP in down ballot races.
“You can see the Trump wing, and [then] the Eisenhower or the Gerry Ford Republicans — the country club wing of the party so to speak,” said Kevin Spiker, a political scientist at Ohio University. “You see competing factions for the future direction of their party.”
As you may have read, there have been some celebrity endorsements. We’d have been glad to have those.
Ohio state Sen. Bob Peterson (R)
LaRe is likely best positioned to win those Eisenhower Republicans, but Peterson believes his name recognition and district-wide door-knocking operation could extend his reach beyond the district’s rural areas.
“This is a suburban, rural and Appalachian district,” Peterson told HuffPost. “That’s exactly what I represent in the Ohio senate right now.”
In an interview after his campaign event on Wednesday, Peterson told HuffPost that he draws inspiration from a fairly ideologically diverse group of Ohio Republican congressmen, citing right-wing Rep. Jim Jordan’s “conservative values;” former Rep. Pat Tiberi’s “great interest in tax policy;” Rep. Brad Wenstrup’s military service; and Rep. Troy Balderson’s intimate knowledge of his district.
Asked which Democrat he is most looking forward to working with, Peterson named Rep. Joyce Beatty, who represents Columbus and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
Peterson was careful not to mention Trump by name during his remarks to supporters, but he still found a way to address the elephant in the room.
“As you may have read, there have been some celebrity endorsements. We’d have been glad to have those,” he said, before declaring that the support of the local elected officials, Farm Bureau leaders and rank-and-file voters in the room meant more to him anyway. “Those people who live, work and have been voted into office are more important to me than any other endorsement.”
Although Peterson’s warm and easy-going demeanor could not be more different from Trump’s bluster, the former president’s influence is apparent. Peterson is distributing campaign literature that shows a photo of him with Trump taken at a 2016 Trump rally (though it does not explicitly suggest that Trump has endorsed him).
While avoiding a discussion of the election results and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Peterson told HuffPost he hopes to see legislation shoring up “election integrity.” He looked back fondly on Trump’s tax cuts, increased border enforcement, and renegotiation of international trade agreements, offering only the mildest of criticism.
“I wish he had tweeted a little bit less,” Peterson said. “And he probably would still be president today if he had tweeted a little bit less.”
Earlier this week, Trump called out Peterson and other candidates — without naming them — for implying proximity to him, despite Trump’s endorsement of Carey.
“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,” he said in a statement. “But I do know who Mike Carey is—I know a lot about him, and it is all good.”
As in Texas’ 6th, Trump and his team have gone all-in for Carey, risking additional humiliation if the candidate loses.
At a late June rally in another part of the state, Trump touted his endorsement of Carey, who, following in Trump’s footsteps, is branding himself as a “conservative outsider,” not a “politician.”
Carey has featured the footage of Trump praising him in a TV ad. “He’s a wonderful man ― I’ve known him for a long time,” the ad shows Trump saying.
In addition, the Club for Growth has once again jumped into the race in a way that stands to benefit Trump’s candidate of choice. The conservative group has spent more than $300,000 attacking LaRe, Peterson and state Sen. Stephanie Kunze for being insufficiently conservative.
Were it not for the intervention of Trump’s super PAC and the Club for Growth, Peterson’s cash haul might take him further. He has raised the second most of any candidate after Carey, bringing in more than $455,000 in just three months of campaigning.
Peterson’s TV ads show him standing among sheep as a metaphor for his greater level of conservative conviction. “You can’t save lives and stop [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi with sheep,” he says in one spot.
Peterson is betting that Republican voters still care more about a politician’s local roots and commitment to traditional GOP priorities like restricting abortion rights and cutting taxes, rather than Trump’s endorsement or Trump-like rhetorical pyrotechnics. He routinely touts his and his wife’s volunteer work for a “pregnancy resource center” where faith-based activists try to dissuade women from getting abortions.
At a time when Trump has made the “outsider” moniker the most coveted brand in Republican politics, Peterson is trying to sell voters on experience.
On Wednesday, he even took a veiled swipe at Carey, who has not served in public office.
“I’ve got a voting record,” Peterson told HuffPost. “It’s not just rhetoric.”
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