Mike Gibbons campaigns in Bellefontaine

By: - March 3, 2022 3:45 am

Mike Gibbons campaigning at Roadhouse Depot Brewing in Bellefontaine. (photo by Nick Evans)

There were half a dozen pizzas laid out on a table in the back of Roadhouse Depot Tuesday afternoon. About thirty people stopped by the Bellefontaine brewery for a meet and greet with Republican Senate candidate Mike Gibbons. The crowd skewed older and white, with a mix of farmers, retirees and local politicians or businessmen in blazers.

Ron and Deb Baker have been in Bellefontaine since 1979. Looking out at the field of Senate candidates Ron wishes some of them would’ve tried for governor. There’s only one that turns him off — “he’s been on Tucker (Carlson) about every other day,” Baker said trying to recall J.D. Vance’s name. In television ads, Gibbons has attacked Vance for initially opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy.

“He kind of talks a little bit two ways,” Baker continued about Vance, expressing concerns he might be another Sen. Rob Portman, “Portman started off good, but he turned out to be kind of a disappointment.”

Baker wasn’t the only one to call out Vance by name. Barrett Wells describes himself as a transplant — he’s only been in the area since 2001.

“I’m not overly impressed with J.D. Vance,” he said, “because he himself said one thing six months ago and now he himself is saying something different now.”

Wells described himself as a big fan of Ohio Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan and said it’s probably a race between Gibbons and Josh Mandel for his vote.

Gibbons’ pitch

Gibbons spends a lot of his stump speech talking about family, both to describe where he comes from and why he’s running. His work as an investment banker has made Gibbons a millionaire many times over, and that personal fortune has helped bankroll his campaign. It’s not exactly an “everyman” profile, so he emphasizes humble roots.

Gibbons talked about his dad working as a schoolteacher and a wrestling coach. He even borrowed Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s “dignity of work” in describing how he picked up odd jobs to support the family. For himself, Gibbons talked about eagerly looking forward to driving the manure spreader as a kid on his grandfather’s farm and working in concrete construction when he was older.

“I will be the only U.S. Senator who can finish your driveway,” he quipped.

As for why he decided to run, Gibbons points to his son’s service as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He described a conversation with his wife after visiting their son’s base in Pensacola, Florida.

“I have got to do something,” Gibbons recalled saying. “My son’s gonna be risking his life every day for this country, and I’ve done nothing like that.”

Gibbons’ rhetoric is reminiscent of the traditional businessman-turned-politician pitch, with a few updates for a Trump-era GOP. He highlights his competence as an executive, his record creating jobs and his ability to balance a budget. He bemoans the national debt and inflation. But his positions on the cultural issues important to the party’s conservative base are sharper than the chamber of commerce ilk of a decade ago.

“I am pro-life without exception, and I have been my whole life,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think guns in the Second Amendment is about hunting or about self-defense even — it’s our firewall against tyranny. I believe a nation without borders is no nation at all.”

Endorsements and polls

To underscore his bona fides Gibbons next turned to his endorsement from Kentucky Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

“I know that I can stand next to him, and we can fight for the kind of principles that we all believe in,” Gibbons said. “And I can tell you, Rand Paul endorsed me, and Rob Portman didn’t, and that might tell you something right there.”

The Portman endorsement went to Republican Jane Timken, the former head of the Ohio GOP. In addition to Portman’s backing, Timken has recently picked up a handful former Trump staffers as campaign advisers, raising the question of whether Trump himself will make an endorsement.

Speaking after the event, Gibbons explained that of course he wants Trump’s endorsement.

“He could take the lowest level candidate that’s at 1% and make them competitive overnight,” Gibbons said. “I don’t know whether he’s gonna endorse, I don’t care if he endorses, but if he does endorse, I want it to be me.”

As for whether he’s worried about Timken getting the nod, Gibbons shut it down brusquely.

“Jane Timken is at 5%,” he said. “I have five times the number of voters.”

Gibbons is hanging his hat on a recent poll conducted by Emerson College Polling. It puts him at the head of the pack in the GOP Senate race but his advantage is a bit slimmer than he describes. Timken is at 5.7% to Gibbons’ 22.4%. Also, the poll has a nearly 5 point margin of error, and the plurality of respondents, almost double those backing Gibbons, remain undecided.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Party chair David Pepper chalks up Gibbons’ strong showing to his dominance in ad spending. According to Medium Buying, Gibbons and related PACs have spent more than double what his next closest competitor has spent so far.

After seeing his competitors Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance get speaking slots at CPAC last week, Gibbons copped to a bit of uncertainty, but he insisted the underlying trend the polls are showing is real. Still if he doesn’t win the nomination, he said he’ll back the republican candidate, even if he has to hold his nose.

“I’d vote for a doorknob that had an R on it versus a Democrat,” Gibbons said.

Deb Baker appreciates that about Gibbons. He was her choice in the last Senate race, back in 2018. But despite serving as Trump’s Ohio co-chair in 2016, Gibbon’s didn’t get his endorsement. Instead, Jim Renacci got the nod. Gibbons stayed in the race, and lost in the primary, but Baker liked how he handled it.

“Even though Mike wasn’t tapped the last time, he was still very involved in the campaign here in Ohio.  Which tells me another thing about Mike,” Baker said. “I wasn’t the guy last time, but that didn’t turn him off to Trump. That’s loyalty that’s important.”



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.