Josh Mandel boasts that he's been a populist for two decades.
The former state treasurer has painted himself as a disrupter of the status quo since he launched his third bid for U.S. Senate this year. From city council to the state Legislature, Mandel said, he raised a middle finger to the establishment and advocated for constituents.
"I did not owe anything to anybody," he said of his 2006 Ohio House bid. "My only commitment was to the people."
But Mandel is hardly the only Republican candidate in the Senate race running on the message that propelled former President Donald Trump to office. Observers say it's a strategy that works in Ohio as the GOP shifts right and away from politicians like Sen. Rob Portman – but which candidate can make it work remains to be seen.
"There’s a way to appeal without looking like you’re trying too hard," said GOP strategist Mike Hartley.
Attacks abound in GOP race
Running in the 2022 GOP primary against Mandel are author J.D. Vance, former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, Cleveland car dealer Bernie Moreno and investment banker Mike Gibbons. State Sen. Matt Dolan is also considering a bid and launched a statewide listening tour this summer to inform his decision.
So, what are their credentials?
Moreno and Gibbons are wealthy businessmen who have never held elected office. Timken secured her position as GOP chair with Trump's support. Vance grew up in Appalachia, his family poor and gripped by addiction, before attending Yale and launching a career as a venture capitalist. Mandel is a veteran whose history in politics runs deeper than that of his opponents.
And as recent financial disclosures showed, Moreno, Timken and Mandel all have huge sums of money to their names.
"It’s kind of hard to claim that you’re for the people and you’re for the working class when you have seven figures or more in the bank," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.
There have been attacks a-plenty since the race started as every candidate clamors for the 45th president's endorsement. Vance in particular was blasted for bashing Trump and his supporters in 2016, but others have been chided for any ounce of their history that appears out of line with the Trump doctrine.
They're also fighting over who's most likely to raise hell in Washington.
Mandel has been critical of Vance and Timken on social media, calling himself an "equal opportunity blaster of hypocrites." But Timken hasn't taken the attacks sitting down.
"Ohioans don’t want a failed career politician who has run for office 11 times over 25 years or a Silicon Valley carpetbagger – they want a conservative disrupter who will go to Washington to cut through the noise and get things done, and that’s Jane Timken," campaign spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said.
Vance, for his part, claims that he's largely ignoring the mud-slinging.
“J.D. clearly has all of the momentum in the race," spokeswoman Taylor Van Kirk said. "His focus on addressing real policy concerns – like stopping the amnesty plan currently making its way through Congress – is what’s resonating with Ohioans and that support will only grow."
A $3.5 trillion spending package that Democrats want to pass through reconciliation (making it filibuster-proof) includes funds to provide a path to citizenship for an undetermined number of immigrants, according to The Hill.
The state of Ohio's GOP
The primary for next year's Senate race is months away, giving the campaigns more than enough time to rise or crumble. That means it's too soon to say who has an edge, particularly when all of the candidates have some measure of credibility and funding to back them, observers say.
But what is certain is the appetite among many Ohio Republicans for a more populist, Trumpian candidate – not another Portman.
"One of the things I’ve learned over my time in politics is that your representatives and candidates often reflect the electorate themselves," said strategist Hartley.
Some believe there are voters who crave a less disruptive, policy-focused Republican candidate. Beth Hansen, a consultant who worked for former Gov. John Kasich, said the most dramatic shift in the Ohio GOP has been among the activists most heavily involved in politics.
Trump's message appealed to angry Ohioans, particularly in rural areas, and something similar will likely prevail in next year's Senate race, Hansen said. But she contends the party structure will change in the future as other politicians take office and Trump supporters find themselves disinterested in elections without his name on the ballot.
"The party will begin to reflect those people, those candidates," Hansen said. "For right now, absolutely the party structure has shifted, but my sense is that it’s going to shift again over time."
At the moment, though, the mood of the GOP is clear – and the Senate candidates are fighting tooth and nail to appeal to that base.
"I think the Republican Party in Ohio has been transformed and reworked in the image of Donald Trump," said professor Cohen.
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.