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Forum brings six leading GOP US Senate candidates to central Ohio church

A crowd of around 1,000 people gather at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville to hear the GOP candidates for the US Senate state their cases.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
A crowd of around 1,000 people gather at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville to hear the GOP candidates for the US Senate state their cases.

The half-dozen candidates were asked about immigration, judicial appointments and social issues - but not about former President Trump, though most have angled to gain his support.

The six leading candidates for the Republican nomination for Ohio’s open US Senate seat met in a big Westerville church last night before two conservative moderators.

The forum was aimed at evangelical Christian voters who have become one of the most reliable and therefore influential blocs of voters for the GOP.

One of the first questions from conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt was about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill negotiated for and supported by Rob Portman, the Senator the candidates want to replace. It’s opposed by former President Trump. Five of the six are running pro-Trump campaigns and are also opposed.

“The bill does not actually address predominantly what I call real infrastructure – roads, bridges, broadband – and has an addition of all sorts of other Democrat socialist leaning agenda items in that bill," said former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken.

Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons said infrastructure can be improved with existing spending.

“I would not have supported the infrastructure bill. This country is broke. I spent much of my early career financing infrastructure projects. This bill is not about infrastructure projects," Gibbons said.

Venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance talked about a provision to encourage more women to drive trucks, since stats show they’re 20% less likely to be involved in crashes than men.

“That’s not infrastructure. It’s totally bogus – it’s probably not even neutral. It’s a terrible thing to add into federal law. So we’re spending money we don’t have for terrible ideas. It’s like a triple loss for our country and for the state of Ohio," said Vance.

Cleveland car dealer turned tech entrepreneur Bernie Moreno says he would rather money be repurposed from the American Rescue Plan, the COVID relief package he called a "huge boondoggle".

“So as Republicans, we can’t just sit up here and say, ‘no that’s bad’, ‘no that’s bad’, ‘no that’s bad’. We have to offer a solution. And the solution certainly can’t be to do more of what the Democrats want," Moreno said.

Former state treasurer Josh Mandel opposes the infrastructure package, but used his answer to talk more about the fork in the road he says the Republican Party is facing.

“These RINOs, the traitors who voted for impeachment like Romney and Cheney and Gonzalez. We gotta get rid of them – get them out of the Republican Party. The path I’m going to take? I’m going there to be reinforcements for Jim Jordan, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump," Mandel said.

But Cleveland baseball team part owner and state Sen. Matt Dolan broke from the pack, saying he supports the bill, which he says does not add to the debt or increase taxes.

“I don’t know how you can say you’re for Ohio if you wouldn’t vote for this bill. Understand what this bill is – it is a very narrow infrastructure bill where half the money is paid for already by your gas tax.”

But Dolan was in agreement with the other candidates on tougher rules on immigration, tougher bargaining with China and litmus tests for judicial appointments.

Candidates for the US Senate seat vacated by Rob Portman gather at a church in Westerville to state their cases.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Jane Timken, Matt Dolan, Mike Gibbons, J.D Vance, Josh Mandel and Bernie Moreno all appeared at the forum on Sunday, October 24, 2021 at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville.

There were lots of digs on President Biden and former President Trump’s name was invoked many times, but the candidates were never directly asked about him or about Trumps’ big lie that he won the 2020 vote – though Dolan did say he was the only one who would have voted to certify Biden’s win. The candidates were also not asked about the January 6 insurrection.

The interconnected topics of kids, education and the pandemic came up several times. Dolan was asked directly about the universal voucher or backpack plan supported by the Center for Christian Virtue, the forum’s main sponsor. It would give a taxpayer funded voucher to any Ohio public school student to attend private school.

“We fund our public schools. We need to hold them a little more accountable. We allow you to leave. The backpack bill is a step in the right direction to say, your tax dollars maybe should be more following the student," Dolan said.

The group was asked what they feel the greatest crisis facing kids is. Vance described the decline of the nuclear family, which he says is related to federal economic policy that's “shipped our manufacturing base off to China, and that destroyed the economic base on which middle-class families were built. If we want to have healthy, stable families, we need to have jobs in this country where a man can work, provide for his family and that’s that," Vance said.

Timken said the public school system is failing its students, bringing up something that’s not taught in Ohio’s K-12 schools.

“And instead of prayer and patriotism in school, we’re now talking about critical race theory and other issues like sexuality and other sex education that is destroying the lives of these children," Timken said.

Poverty affects a fifth of Ohio’s kids. Gibbons said poverty is the biggest crisis for Ohio kids, and pointed to what he called “wokeism” and dysfunctional families funded by government.

“Fatherless families are killing kids and we can’t let it happen. And I mean they’re physically, that’s just not metaphorically. You know, you see the murders on the streets children being murdered. It can’t go on," Gibbons said.

Mandel went further, saying he doesn’t accept the nearly 220 year old principle of the separation between church and state.

“My personal feeling is, we shouldn’t be watering down, we should be doubling down. We should be instilling faith in the classroom, in the workplace and everywhere in society," Mandel said.

While Mandel’s answers tended to get the biggest applause in the church, Moreno directly asked a question raised by some Republicans – what Mandel’s attention was on in the early part of the pandemic and before it.

“Where was it last summer? When I was getting death threats at my house because I was speaking up against lockdowns. That’s the difference. When you weren’t running for office, what were you doing?” Moreno asked.

The candidates agreed to meet again for a similar forum in March, before the May primary. But only three of them wholeheartedly embraced a debate with the eventual Democratic nominee featuring journalists as moderators.

A seventh Republican candidate, Mark Pukita, had tried to join the forum but was turned away. His campaign is claiming a contract that would have allowed him to participate was violated and is threatening legal action.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at
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