GROVE CITY, Ohio (AP) — As soon as it became clear last week that a Texas congressional candidate backed by Donald Trump would be defeated in a special election, the former president's allies quickly shifted their attention to Ohio to ward off another embarrassing loss.
Make America Great Again, a super PAC chaired by Trump's former campaign manager, quietly purchased $300,000 in Ohio television advertising. The buy was intended to provide a late-stage boost to another Trump-backed candidate facing a crowded field of Republicans in a special election on Tuesday.
The midsummer race for Ohio's traditionally Republican 15th Congressional District wouldn't typically get much national attention. But it's suddenly becoming a high-stakes test of Trump's endorsement power, which he has wielded as a cudgel to silence opposition in the GOP.
Low-turnout special elections aren't perfect measures of Trump's strength and he remains a powerhouse in GOP politics, revealing over the weekend that his political action committees are sitting on a massive $100 million pile of cash. But a second loss in two weeks could chip away at Trump's self-proclaimed kingmaker status heading into next year's midterm elections.
“If it happens a couple times, candidates and political professionals — they’re not stupid — they’re going to say you can win this race even if you’re not endorsed by Trump,” said Ohio Republican consultant Ryan Stubenrauch.
In other cases, Trump’s decision to throw his weight behind candidates with baggage, including several running against GOP incumbents who crossed him by voting in favor of his second impeachment, has put him at odds with other party leaders. Some Republicans fear his moves could complicate efforts to win back majorities in the House and Senate next year.
In Ohio, Trump has endorsed Mike Carey, a coal lobbyist who is among 10 Republicans jockeying to replace former GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who retired from Congress earlier this year. He faces a formidable lineup, including three current state lawmakers: state Sens. Bob Peterson and Stephanie Kunze and state Rep. Jeff LaRe. Former state Rep. Ron Hood is also a contender.
LaRe is backed by Stivers, who held the seat for a decade. Hood, meanwhile, has generous support from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's political action committee. Candidate Ruth Edmonds, a Black minister and former Columbus NAACP president is endorsed by religious conservative James Dobson and Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio elections chief who served on Trump's transition team.
In an interview, Carey described the pitch he made to Trump when the two met for what he thought would be a photo-op earlier this year.
“I said, ‘Listen, Mr. President, you’ve been somebody that supported a lot of political candidates over the course of your lifetime, and many of them let you down.’ I said, ‘I’m kind of in the same boat — I mean, on a much smaller scale,’" Carey recalled. "After about an hour and 20 minutes, he said, ‘I’m all in. I’m going to endorse you and do whatever it takes to get you over the finish line.’”
Trump, who headlined a rally with Carey in June, reupped his endorsement last week, decrying candidates who have used his likeness or cited him in ads to try to woo voters. “I don’t know them, and don’t even know who they are. But I do know who Mike Carey is — I know a lot about him, and it is all good,” Trump said in a statement. "Let there be no further doubt who I have Endorsed!”
About 560,000 voters are registered to vote in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, which leans Republican. Half of its voters live in parts of Franklin and Fairfield counties, primarily suburban Columbus communities that Republicans for generations could count on, but where Trump lost support in 2020. In the sparsely populated remainder of the district, Trump improved over his 2016 performance, as he did throughout rural Ohio.