In Licking County, Ohio, east of the capital city of Columbus, bumper stickers on pickup trucks make it clear it is Trump Country.
And at a recent meeting of the county’s Republican women’s group, 66-year-old retiree Geraldine Jacobs made it clear that she’s a Trump supporter.
“It’s a shame that we went from the best president to now really the worst president,” she says.
Trump won 63% of the vote in Licking County in last year’s presidential election, en route to easily carrying the state for the second time. The result seemed to prove that Ohio is not the perennial battleground state many had still thought it was.
Republican politics in Ohio has also changed in the era of Trump. And with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman — a fixture of the GOP establishment — more change is coming. As the Republican field to replace him begins to take shape in these very early days, it’s clear Trump retains an outsized influence in the state.
Trump lost. His influence among the GOP remains strong
Polls since Trump left office show an overwhelming number of Republicans still view him as the leader of the party. Those same polls show that a solid majority of Republicans also say — falsely — that Trump won in 2020. He did not.
Licking County’s Jacobs is in that category. She says that President Biden did not win in November, making allegations of vote counting being stopped on election night, even suggesting that Fox News was somehow in on it. When pressed, she provided no evidence to support her claims, saying, “I watched what happened on election night. And I couldn’t believe Fox News. I mean, that was the end of Fox News for me.”
Trump’s influence in Ohio — even after defeat — so far has showed no signs of decline.
In the Ohio legislature, where the GOP controls the agenda with a super-majority, Republicans are looking to enact new restrictions on voting, following Trump’s baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 elections. There have even been proposals to rename a state park after Trump and to honor him with a state holiday. U.S. Senate hopefuls are jockeying to be the most pro-Trump Republican candidate. And the fact that a Cleveland area GOP congressman, Anthony Gonzalez, voted to impeach Trump in January has made him a handy target for Republicans looking to catch Trump’s eye, and maybe an endorsement.
But even at the Licking County GOP gathering, there were a number of opinions about the former president and the role he should play going forward in Republican politics.
The guest speaker at the event was GOP consultant Matt Dole, whose remarks offered a bit of consolation to audience members who may have loved Trump but were far less fond of his Twitter habit.
“We had to defend whatever Donald Trump did on a day in and day out basis,” Dole told his audience of about 50 Republican Party members. He added that they were all for Trump’s policies, “but sometimes his tweets got in the way.”
Now, he says, the focus for GOP activists needs to be winning in next year’s midterms, and holding onto Portman’s U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. That’s crucial to the party’s goal of winning back control of both houses of Congress in 2022.
Republicans wish Trump were still in office, but according to Dole, they are now free to go on offense and focus on attacking the policies of Biden and the Democrats.
Looking for new GOP leaders to emerge
There are Trump voters who seem ready to move on. Tricia Moore is an attorney and the president of the Licking County GOP women’s group. Asked if Trump remains the leader of the party, she starts her answer by giving the former president his due: “Trump is a bigger-than-life figure. I think he is not afraid to say what he believes in, not afraid to say things that are unpopular.”
But she then makes it clear that she’s already looking to others as the future of the party: “I think that there are other Republicans that are coming out strong and standing for these conservative values that are going to step forward.” Moore notes that she’s been watching Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis closely and likes what she sees.
Still, it’s hard to get past Trump’s dominance, something he’ll deploy to influence next year’s midterms.
And that complicates things, according to Ohio Tea Party activist Tom Zawistowski. He says Trump’s time as president is to be applauded, but he also says Trump could have won reelection if he’d been better organized, more disciplined and had surrounded himself with better people.
Now Zawistowski wonders about Trump’s next phase. “What’s Trump 2.0 really look like?” he asks. “How much did he learn from this experience?”
Zawistowski has a practical request of Trump. If he’s going to get involved in GOP primaries in upcoming local and state elections, Trump should be sure he does his homework. Consult with activists on the ground about whom to endorse.
“The problem there is that Trump’s like the big elephant in the room,” Zawistowski says. “If he says, ‘I’m endorsing this person,’ well, I got news for you: That’s probably who’s going to win.”
The Tea Party leader warns that picking the wrong person could leave some excellent hopefuls on the sidelines. He says he offers this unsolicited advice because he knows just how much clout Trump has with Republican voters in a state like Ohio.
Democrats battle historic midterm trends
For Democrats in Ohio it’s a very different situation. They are pushing back against the storyline that it is now a solidly red state.
Rep. Monique Smith, a Democratic state House member who actually flipped her suburban Cleveland district from red to blue last year, says it’s been tough seeing Trump carry her home state twice.
“It was heartbreaking because part of it is about identity,” Smith says. “If you’re an Ohioan, what do you think that means? I think that means that we’re pretty moderate and pretty commonsense. So it remains shocking to me.”
Meanwhile, Ohio Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Walters seems to relish Trump’s ongoing influence on the state GOP. And she predicts that in next year’s U.S Senate race, Democrats will do well with voters who see how Biden has tackled the pandemic and the economy.
“There’s no better argument than reality,” she says. “I think it’s meaningful that not a single Ohio Republican voted to support the American Recovery Plan.” Walters describes it as “a clear and simple decision on who’s on your side, who cares about you and your family, and who doesn’t.”
She says Democrats have a case to make in Ohio, and Trump’s involvement in state races makes it easier to convince voters what the stakes are for anyone who doesn’t hold Trump’s worldview.
Still, long-term historic trends would also indicate that the first midterm after a presidential election is always tough for the party of a new president.