The crowd of about 950 at the evangelical Genoa Baptist Church in the northern suburbs of Columbus never quite booed Matt Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Indians, but they didn’t embrace him either.
It was the first time all the major candidates were on the stage together: Dolan, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, former Republican Party chair Jane Timken, author JD Vance and Cleveland businesspeople Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno.
Dolan said he would have supported certifying the 2020 presidential election, calling it the only option under the U.S. Constitution; favors an anti-LGBT discrimination bill, because it’s good for business; and backs the $1 trillion infrastructure bill moving through Congress.
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“I don’t know how you can say you’re fighting for Ohio if you wouldn’t vote for this bill,” he said, arguing it would return gas tax money to the state, repair a key bridge and help provide broadband in Appalachia.
The other five candidates balked—though a bipartisan deal on the legislation was largely the handiwork of Sen. Rob Portman—calling the bill crazy, a disaster and a complete boondoggle. At the same time, all said they would accept Portman’s endorsement, if offered.
Democrats have insisted that Portman’s bipartisan bill be passed in tandem with a much larger bill—up to $3.5 trillion—that also would include a radical social agenda. The latter bill has received no GOP support.
Mandel reiterated his position, to applause, that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and, in answer to a question on the biggest threat facing schoolkids, said, “My personal feeling is, there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.”
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He said he would bring the “steel spine” of a U.S. Marine veteran to Washington, if elected—drawing one of the evening’s few direct attacks from Moreno.
“I loved your steel spine, which is why I supported you in 2012,” Moreno said. “But where was it last summer? When I was getting death threats, I was speaking out against the lockdown. That’s the difference. When you weren’t running for office, what were you doing?”
Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy, named fatherlessness as the biggest hurdle facing American children and said grandparents, like his own, who must raise the children of those with drug addictions should be given financial help to keep their families together.
Timken, the only woman in the field, spoke often from the perspective of a mother. She said the education system is failing students and that she opposes accommodations in school restrooms and sports for transgender students as a dangerous encroachment on religious freedom. “I’m a mom, not a ‘birthing person,’” she said.
She also touted her ties to Trump, who has not endorsed in the race. “I am the only true America First, grassroots candidate in this race that can win this primary, unite the party and take on the radical left’s agenda,” she said.
Gibbons said he would bring a businessman’s acumen to Washington, while pledging he would not run for reelection if elected. To the question of his small campaign warchest, Gibbons said he would be able to get the money he needed.
“I’ll raise as much money as I need,” he said. “If I can’t raise it, I’ll put it in. And I believe you put your money where your mouth is.” He said he also has donated to 73 individual school board candidates this year, as conservative candidates seek to win seats from liberals.
At the end of the forum, sponsored by the Center for Christian Virtue’s American Leadership Forum, moderator Hugh Hewitt, a radio host and author, tried to extract a promise from the candidates that they would refuse to participate in any debate in which media outlets or reporters he dubbed liberal were sponsors or panelists.
“Had my friends in the legacy media been here, you would have been asked about Jan. 6, and then Jan. 6 again, then you would have been asked about Jan. 6, which is terrible,” Hewitt said, to laughter from the crowd. “But then you would have been asked about Donald Trump’s role in the events of Jan. 6.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press