Trump endorsement power faces another test in Ohio special race

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, on July 11, 2021.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, on July 11, 2021.Bloomberg photo by Dylan Hollingsworth

Former President Donald Trump's power as Republican kingmaker will face another test on Tuesday as a large cast of candidates vie to be the party's choice for an open congressional seat in Ohio.

Trump has endorsed Mike Carey, a coal industry consultant and former lobbyist who's one of 11 primary hopefuls to replace Representative Steve Stivers in Ohio's 15th District.

But Stivers, who resigned in May to become Ohio Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive, is supporting state Representative Jeff LaRe. And Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from neighboring Kentucky, is backing former state Representative Ron Hood, making it harder for Trump's hand-picked choice to emerge as the front-runner.

The crowded field and expected low turnout will challenge the former president's ability to wield decisive power, something he has vowed to do in party primaries, a break from presidential tradition. The vote comes on the heels of a July 27 special election in Texas in which his chosen candidate, Susan Wright, lost.

"Right now, the Trump endorsement is the gold standard in Republican primaries," said Mark Weaver, a veteran Republican consultant in Ohio. "If Carey loses, it's one indication that Trump's support is not as powerful as some think."

Retired Army colonel Greg Betts and Allison Russo, a state representative, are seeking the Democratic nomination to run in the Nov. 2 general election, but it's a Republican-leaning district that Trump carried with 57% of the vote in 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government. The sprawling district encompasses all or parts of 12 counties and includes the Columbus suburbs and parts of rural Appalachia.

Trump often says almost every candidate he endorses wins, and that's largely been true in Republican primaries -- even if his record in general election races is more mixed. Some 120 Trump-endorsed candidates won all but two GOP congressional primaries in 2020, according to an accounting by Ballotpedia.

Yet he has lost his ability to rally people to his side on social media and has to find venues, like so-called tele-rallies, and the candidates' own advertising to make his opinions known.

With Trump's backing, Wright was the top voter-getter in a May special election to replace her late husband, Ron Wright, but she didn't manage to avoid a run-off. She ultimately lost to Jake Ellzey, a Republican state representative, in the low-turnout runoff, despite Trump issuing multiple statements and participating in a tele-rally with her on July 26.

That race, however, is less of a bellwether than other campaigns will because it was a primary runoff election in summer of an off-campaign year, and turnout was about 8%.

In the Ohio 15th District primary, Trump endorsed Carey, a consultant at American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc. and past president of the Ohio Coal Association. Trump also joined a tele-rally for Carey on July 20 and complained that other candidates were trying to suggest they, too, have his support.

"He's the only candidate in the race that has my complete and total endorsement," Trump said of Carey on the call. "I know Mike Carey, he's a true outsider, he's a true fighter, he's a warrior, and he's going to win."

Carey was also endorsed by House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, a staunch Trump ally who replaced Representative Liz Cheney in the House Republican leadership after she voted to impeach Trump. Longtime Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski has also campaigned with Carey in the district.

Yet others in the race are touting their own high-powered endorsements. Stivers backed LaRe and aired campaign ads for him; Paul and his affiliated super political action committee is supporting Hood; the Republican organization of Franklin County, which includes Columbus, has endorsed state Senator Stephanie Kunze; and Ruth Edmonds has the backing of the Right Women PAC led by Debbie Meadows, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Bob Peterson, who has represented parts of the district as a longtime state senator, is touting endorsements from 150 local GOP leaders and Ohio Right to Life.

The race has attracted $2.64 million in television and radio advertising, according to Medium Buying, a firm that tracks ad spending. The firm said that includes $475,000 by the super PAC affiliated with Paul for Hood; $306,000 by a Trump-backed super PAC for Carey; $342,000 by Stivers' campaign for LaRe; $266,000 by Peterson's campaign; $236,000 by Carey's campaign; and $179,000 from LaRe's campaign.

Stivers, who announced his endorsement before Trump did, said he thinks the primary is between LaRe and Carey and that he doesn't think either endorsement will decide the race. Yet he acknowledged the effect Trump is having.

"Clearly there are a lot of people that want to follow the president's endorsement, and that's why Mike Carey is a major force in this race," said Stivers, who served for five terms and is a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

LaRe said while Trump's endorsement would carry weight in the district, he's pointing out that he supports Trump's policies. He's also emphasizing his own background as a lawmaker and in law enforcement as a former deputy sheriff and executive vice president of the Whitestone Group, an asset-protection and security services company.

Carey cited a June poll of likely GOP primary voters by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio that showed the former president with an 87% favorability rating among likely Republican primary voters -- and that his support jumped from 20% to 52% when voters were told about Trump's endorsement.

"When people know that President Trump has endorsed me, they're going to vote for me," Carey said. "I just got to win it. I don't want to let him down."