When former president Donald Trump announced he was relaunching his rally roadshow—with the first stop being in Wellington, Ohio tomorrow—the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram had this reaction in an op-ed: “Why us? . . . It’s enough to inspire both anticipation and dread.”
While Trump supporters will dismiss such expressions with their usual disdain for the media, his appearance in Ohio should, indeed, inspire some dread. It is very much a singular act, focused on targeting one GOP member of Congress.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez was one of ten Republicans to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, and his district runs close to this part of Ohio. For that reason, Trump is going to take over the Lorain County Fairgrounds tomorrow to blast a sitting congressman who won his district in 2020 by more than 25 percent, and even ran ahead of Trump by 15,000 votes.
“No, I just don’t think Gonzalez is good. I don’t think he represents the people. I think he’s not somebody that thinks the way I do and others do,” Trump said in a recent podcast, explaining his rationale for the rally.
With a stage set up in the fairgrounds of a small town that is little more than an intersection in farm country, what should we expect?
“Of course, he’s going to talk about some of the Republicans he thinks stabbed him in the back, starting with Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio, Liz Cheney [of Wyoming], Adam Kinzinger [of Illinois], and the people who voted against him in the House during the impeachment,” predicted David B. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron in a recent interview. “I think it’s mostly going to be a Donald Trump pity party.”
It will be interesting to see how the rally will be perceived. Trump’s choice to hold this rally in Wellington, a town in the middle of nowhere with a population of about 5,000, really is very strange. He could have chosen the county seat, Elyria, with a population of 54,000, or Lorain, with a population of 64,000. They’re both just half an hour away from the site he picked. It is also odd that he is holding a rally in a state whose GOP is experiencing some serious controversies. And then, to focus on blasting a popular congressman who was once a Saint Ignatius High School and Ohio State University football star—well, it’s almost as if Trump, to get personal attention, is throwing gasoline on a building that is already in flames.
Let’s start with the state GOP. Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives expelled from its ranks a Republican member, Larry Householder, who had been the house speaker until he was ousted from that position last year. It was a massive bribery scandal that cost him first the speakership and then his seat: Householder and four other individuals (including a high-powered lobbyist who committed suicide in March) have been accused of accepting more than $60 million in bribe money from the utility FirstEnergy Corp. to secure a $1.3 billion public bailout of the company’s nuclear power plants.
“[It] is likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people in the state of Ohio,” said David DeVillers, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, during a news conference Tuesday. In all, Householder received more than $500,000 for his personal benefit, according to DeVillers.
There is a Trump connection to this big bribery case: Bob Paduchik, a senior adviser to the Trump re-election campaign, made calls to members of the Ohio House of Representatives pressuring them to vote ‘yes’ on the bill in question. Paduchik was co-chairman of the Republican National Committee during Trump’s presidency, and with Trump’s backing, he became chairman of the Ohio GOP in February.
In recent weeks, another of Trump’s Ohio projects has hit the skids in a big way. Lordstown Motors, a new electric pickup truck venture near Youngstown that was once a General Motors plant, has admitted to fudging the numbers to make the company look better than it really is. They claimed they had more than 100,000 locked-in pre-orders on the trucks they had hoped to produce. That number now appears to be fictional, as do other recent claims made by company representatives. Lordstown’s stock has fallen dramatically and the future of the company is definitely at risk.
You may recall Trump’s connection to this particular plant. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he visited eastern Ohio and famously said he wouldn’t let GM close the plant near Youngstown. That’s the plant that Lordstown Motors eventually took over. Back in 2017, six months into his presidency, Trump advised a Youngstown audience:
Let me tell you folks in Ohio and of this area: Don’t sell your house. Don’t sell your house. Do not sell it. We’re going to get those values up. We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build brand new ones. So it’s going to happen.
Four years later, just before the 2020 election, Trump posed with and praised Lordstown Motors, doing photo-ops with the electric truck.
Lordstown’s mayor, Arno Hill, told the Financial Times last week: “We’re survivors here in the Mahoning Valley. . . . We’re the land of broken promises.”
Let’s now return to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez. The 36-year-old two-term congressman has largely stayed quiet about Trump’s attacks, but expressed himself recently on why he voted for Trump’s impeachment. He appeared on Cleveland’s City Club Forum for about an hour last month, and portrayed his decision as more about philosophical morality than political meanness:
As a party, frankly, we need to be on the side of truth, we need to be on the side of substance, and that’s how we’re going to win back majorities both in the House and the Senate and hopefully the White House in 2024. Continuing to perpetuate falsehoods, especially ones that are dangerous that led to the violence on January 6, is a recipe for disaster for the party, but it’s also horribly irresponsible.
“The country was under attack, the Capitol was under attack, the Constitution was under attack,” says Rep. Gonzalez. But instead of trying to investigate the attack and understand its causes with clear eyes, the party has been deluding itself:
Sometimes when I hear us talk about the state of our party, we talk as if we somehow won an election. We lost all of them. . . . Right now, my concern is we’re trying to excommunicate our own voters and when you’re fully out of power, you need to be adding voters, not subtracting voters.
Trump’s reaction to such radical thinking has been to back a candidate to run against Gonzalez in the 2022 primary. Max Miller, 32, a former Marine Corps reservist, was an aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign, then a deputy campaign manager on the 2020 campaign. In between, he worked for the White House as part of President Trump’s advance team.
Miller, who has a troubling police record, has never run for elective office himself. But he has some family background in politics: He is the grandson of the late Samuel H. Miller, a longtime Cleveland real estate tycoon, who was active in the Cleveland Democratic community and his Jewish faith. Max Miller’s grandmother, Ruth Miller, ran for Congress four decades ago. In some respects, it seems as though Trump is backing a Republican candidate against Gonzalez for no other reason than that the challenger worked for him and is willing to run—and to go to Mar-a-Lago often to praise the former president.
But the problem Miller will face is that Ohio’s 16th Congressional District is more suburban middle ground and less Trump Country. Plus, the district is more than than 20 percent Roman Catholic, and Gonzalez’s support of anti-abortion bills has likely not gone unnoticed.
Gonzalez’s father is a Cuban immigrant who runs a steel processing company located in Cleveland’s inner city. The congressman has used his family background to preach the “bootstrap” responsibility message Republicans have traditionally loved. Even Trump’s support may not be enough to help Miller defeat Gonzalez, a popular congressman who, in this football-crazed state, was a high school and college football star who played in the NFL.
The top Ohio Republicans—Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, and retiring Sen. Rob Portman—are all skipping Trump’s Saturday rally for various reasons. But some of the challengers to the established Republicans, like former Congressman Jim Renacci, who is running against DeWine, will attend. It shows how Trump is fostering a split in the party at these rallies, with Ohio being the first of four reportedly scheduled this summer.
Trump’s attitude toward Gov. DeWine, in particular, who first won a race for Congress in 1982, is an example of the divide Trump is fostering in states like Ohio. DeWine received considerable favorable press coverage for his competent management of COVID-19 in Ohio last year, but avoided criticizing Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. In the days just after the 2020 election, though, DeWine refused to join in Trump’s Big Lie, and he called for a transition to a Biden administration to begin—leading Trump to tweet out that DeWine should have a primary challenger. Then, after the January 6 insurrection, DeWine said that Trump “has started a fire that has threatened to burn down our democracy. . . . This incendiary speech yesterday, the one he gave preceding the march that he gave to the protesters, served only to fan those flames, encouraging the mob behavior that ensued.” This is not the sort of breach Trump tolerates.
Yet the public seems to be tired of the kind of fighting that Trump enjoys instigating. In my experience reporting on why voters in Midwest states like Ohio flipped which lever for president last November, I found little enthusiasm for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. I did find enthusiasm for stopping all the personal attack antics, though.
Baldwin Wallace University political science professor Tom Sutton said some of Ohio’s earliest support for Trump’s 2016 presidential run came from the Cleveland suburbs—which is perhaps why Trump thinks he can sway voters in this district. But it is also Gonzalez’s base. He will be no pushover for Trump’s midterm plan for this district.
“Gonzalez has a track record as a congressperson who can talk about his own conservative values and what he’s done for the district,” Sutton said. “He may not have Trump’s support, but there are other reasons people might support him. He was an Ohio State football player, he went to St. Ignatius [High School], he is an ex-pro football player. This will be a really interesting test to see to what degree this Trump effect really does matter.”