A 2016 Flashback in Ohio’s Senate Race

Political News

As the brutal grudge match in the Buckeye State grinds to a close, shades of the Trump-Cruz duel re-emerge.

Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, and Texan Sen. Ted Cruz take questions from the press before a campaign event at Victory Christian Church on April 29, 2022 in Kettering, Ohio. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

COLUMBUS—Senator Ted Cruz walks on stage looking like a man who’s had a good six years. 

It’s been seventy-odd months since the flame-out of the “Cruz-Fiorina” presidential campaign, and sixty-nine months since an opera-bouffe urging of a “vote of conscience.” Three-and-a-half years have gone by since the senator survived a Texas challenge from the homeless man’s RFK, Robert Francis O’Rourke. It has been a year and change since the least salacious Cancun scandal in world history. And it has been just months since cable audiences bore witness to a live vivisection of the Houston politician at the hands of Tucker Carlson, whom the New York Times this weekend crowned the second most powerful Republican in America, the dark prince laying in wait, or Niccolò Machiavelli in the Bill O’Reilly seat.

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Summed up, it would seem a fiasco-filled semi-decade for the onetime high schooler who said (and this is Cruz’s charm—he just flat says it) that he “wanted to take over the world. World domination. You know, rule everything. Rich and powerful. That sort of stuff.”

But in the era of U.S. presidents at Ayatollah-age Cruz knows, like Lenin and Joe Biden, the first rule of politics, a contact sport: survival.

“It’s gotten so bad [inflation, that is] that Antifa can’t afford to buy bricks,” Cruz tells a Baptist crowd on a sober Saturday afternoon. Like the pastor’s son that he is, he assures the gathered that “revival is coming” and that he “believe[s] that with all [his] heart.” The Cuban-American Cruz assailed “undocumented Democrats.” He’s an accelerationist, saying every Democratic excess today means hastening the arrival of a better tomorrow.

No First Gentleman of his Goldman Sachs wife, he’s learned some moves from his 2016 campaign, attacking the neoliberal consensus that the American heartland quite simply needs to “learn to code.” Cribbing Bill  Buckley in a rather mail-in fashion, Cruz says he goes for the most conservative (whatever that means, now or ever) candidate who can get elected. Like Biden, he’s perhaps no one’s first choice, but Cruz understands the base of his party—white Christians—like the president of the United States gets his: black Democrats in the South Carolina primary every four years. Sitting in the pews, it’s not hard to picture the elder statesman Cruz getting the nod in desperation during the 2048 primaries.

But, for now, not being the first choice appears to matter. And Cruz is again attached to a candidacy that looks like it will finish in second place: Josh Mandel for Senate 2022. Whereas Cruz looks bearded, rested, ready, the ex-state treasurer and perennial candidate Mandel looks like where he is: the end of the line. To be sure, Mandel can hold a room. And his appearances in person, and not on Gadfly Twitter, remind of the conclusion of the late Biden chronicler Richard Ben Cramer: in the flesh, almost any major politician is the most charismatic person most people have ever met. Still, there are hints at the fundamental vapidity and enjoyable hilarity of his campaign: “The Democrats do not believe in the Ten Commandments,” Mandel informs.

This contest has been transformed by Donald Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance. (More on that after the result). “Where is he now?” cried out a pissed-off Mandel man in the pew, the only reference to Trump of the day. Mandel’s people/donors are simultaneously more likely to care what Trump says—the diehards—and mostly likely to vote against Trumpism on religious grounds.

It’s a total 2016 replay, with serious overlap between Trump people and Cruz people. Ted Cruz was the strongest competitor way back when. He lost.

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