WILBERFORCE, Ohio (CN) — The seven Ohio Republican vying for a chance to replace U.S. Senator Rob Portman debated Monday night at Central State University.
Former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, who won the random lottery to speak first, characterized herself as “a mom on a mission” who would "fight for parents rights in education.” Timken has the endorsement of outgoing Senator Portman, who announced his retirement last year.
She'll have to best fellow candidates Neil Patel, Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel, Mark Pukita, J.D. Vance, and state Senator Matt Dolan to win the nomination.
Patel is a business owner with companies in Ohio and West Virginia who discussed his desire to protect and serve the Constitution. Pukita, a constitutional conservative, owns a recruiting company called Fast Switch and touted his businsess savvy, while Mike Gibbons, a pro-Trump Republican, said the same about himself. Gibbons, a former investment banker who has spent millions of his own cash to bolster his bid for office, is leading on average in the most recent polls, according to Real Clear Politics.
Just behind him in polling is Mandel, a marine veteran and a former state treasurer, who sought a seat in the Senate three times in the past. Mandel focused on the concepts of economic freedom, individual liberty, and beating the left's secular ideals.
"Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance considers himself a conservative outsider. Although he was once critical of Donald Trump, calling him "reprehensible," Vance has changed his tune on the former president, saying during an appearance on Fox News after he jumped into the race last summer that he regrets the critical things he said and "being wrong about the guy."
"I think he was a good president, I think he made a lot of good decisions for people, and I think he took a lot of flak,” Vance said.
Vance's autobiographical book talks about the struggles of poor Americans in Ohio and Kentucky and the opioid epidemic.
State Senator Matt Dolan talked about how he is looking forward rather than behind at Trump. Dolan, whose family owns the Major League Baseball team the Cleveland Guardians, has also spent millions of his own funds to support his campaign, while his family members have given $3 million to a super PAC that has no publicly stated purpose.
Dolan is the only candidate who answered the question of whether the 2020 election was stolen from Trump in the negative, saying "Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States," although added that Biden was "failing" in office.
All other candidates asserted either that the last presidential election was "stolen" or that there was at least serious fraud and irregularities.
The candidates also answered questions about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, divestments, and whether they would support military action against Russia or help Ukraine establish a no-fly zone under any circumstances. All balked at the idea of sending American troops to Ukraine.
Pukita claimed Biden, Zelenskyy, the media and the intelligence community was lying by suggesting a no-fly zone is possible. “We need to use this as an example of why Europe needs to stand up and take care of themselves," Putkina said.
Vance took issue with Congress giving Ukraine millions.
“It’s not our problem,” Vance said. “It’s not our job and it’s not our business.”
Timken, the only woman on the stage, discussed her feelings of watching the war as a mother. “It breaks my heart. Watching Vladimir Putin bomb a maternity ward and children crossing the border, sometimes by themselves, to escape the ravages of war by that thug, Vladimir Putin. This is all the result of Joe Biden’s weakness,” she said, adding that the Timken Company has "ceased all operations in Russia." Timken is married to former TinkenSteel CEO Ward Timken, Jr.
After a discussion about immigration and the border wall — with Vance declaring that illegal immigration would "break the country if we all it," and Timken saying, "Walls work. Nancy Pelosi built a wall around the Capitol to keep people out," — the candidates answered an Ohio resident's question about religion in government.
“How can we trust that you won’t violate the Constitution’s Article VI prohibition against religious tests for government officials or the First Amendment prohibition against government establishing a religion?” the question asked.
The candidates who were asked the question touted Christianity. Vance said the absence of religion doesn’t create a neutral population, but instead creates one devoted to secular humanism. “That’s what we're seeing in schools all across this country.”
Pukita said constitutional rights were derived from "God-given" rights and “if you can’t talk about God, you can’t talk about our country, our form of government."
“Rather than watering down that Judeo-Christian bedrock, we should be doubling down," Mandel said. "We should be instilling faith in the classroom, in the workplace and everywhere in society.”
The questioning then homed in on the candidates' endorsements and advisors. Timken was evasive on a question about her campaign advisor Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump advisor who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault, focusing instead on her Portman endorsement by Rob Portman.
Mandel defended Timken and Lewandowski, and said he's proud of his endorsements, including from U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn and General Mike Flynn.
Vance, meanwhile, said U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene — who endorses him — is his friend and that she did nothing wrong when she spoke at a white supremacist-affiliated conference recently. Greene also recently repeated Russian claims about "Nazi militias" in Ukraine.
Next up, all candidates were asked if they agree with Florida Senator Rick Scott’s plan to rebuild America and if they’d support Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Most of the candidates expressed disagreement with parts of Scott’s plan, especially a tax hike on the middle class, while none were sure about Mitch McConnell.
Mandel used his time to attack moderator Karen Kasler and the "liberal media," and said he hadn’t read Rick Scott’s plan, but added how he balanced the budget as state treasurer.
Kasler then made the point that Trump has yet to endorse a candidate and asked if any of them could win if they didn’t get the endorsement. All attempted to talk about their Trump-like values while saying they don’t necessarily need his endorsement to win.
The Ohio primary is slated for May 3.