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Commentary: Will the real Frank LaRose please stand up?

frank larose, in a navy blazer and light blue button down shirt, raises his hand with the ohio state flag behind him
Jay LaPrete
Republican Ohio Sec. of State Frank LaRose speaks during an election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.

Republican Frank LaRose, Ohio's secretary of state, has to make a choice when he wakes up every morning.

Which Frank is he going to be today?

Good Frank, who likes to brag about the integrity of Ohio's election system, where, as he is wont to say, it is easy to vote and hard to cheat. He can make a pretty good case for that.

But he can also choose to be Not-So-Good Frank, who bows to Donald Trump and his delusional rants about having an election "stolen" from him. If that happened, it must have been in some alternate universe only Donald Trump has visited.

If LaRose, who wants to be Ohio's next U.S. Senator, has a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other, bad angel won the struggle for LaRose's heart and soul last weekend when he went to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), now a magnet for right-wing conspiracy theorists of all stripes.

LaRose spoke on a panel at CPAC which was originally titled "Easy to Vote, Hard to Cheat," which was right in LaRose's wheelhouse.

But, according to Rob Nichols, LaRose's press secretary, the title of the panel was changed at the last minute to "They Stole It From Us Legally."

"Regardless, the secretary was always prepared to talk about the common sense reforms Ohio has made to run accurate, secure, and accessible elections, including the DATA Act," Nichols said, referring to Senate Bill 71, which would centralize voter data in Ohio and make sure it is available to the public.

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The panel LaRose was on, though, was packed with Trumpish election deniers, including the moderator, Hogan Gibley, a former Trump campaign spokesman who promotes Trump's election fraud claims. He's also helping LaRose and State Sen. Theresa Gavorne, R-Bowling Green, with the DATA Act through the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute.

OK. Maybe Good Frank was somehow hoodwinked into sharing the stage with a bunch of Trump sycophants and election deniers. Maybe.

But he had to know what was going on when he bought a table at CPAC's Ronald Reagan Dinner, a big fundraising event last Friday night that featured defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who — like Trump — doesn’t seem capable of getting it through her skull that she lost the election.

Lake's delusions rival those of the My Pillow Guy for sheer loopiness.

And Frank LaRose paid good money for this?

This seeming identity crisis that LaRose is going through is understandable when you consider how badly he wants to be the GOP candidate to run against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown next year.

Right now, there is only one announced candidate: State Sen. Matt Dolan of suburban Cleveland, who stood out in a field of Republican Senate candidates last year because he didn't bow and scrape before Trump to get his endorsement.

The other day, Dolan's chief campaign strategist, Christopher Maloney, tweeted out a wrist-slap that was clearly aimed at LaRose, although he didn't mention him by name.

"It's easy to refute the garbage claims of Stacy Abrams, Sherrod Brown and fringe leftists without paling around with election deniers and conspiracy theorists," Maloney wrote. "There's a reason why Republicans who do tend to lose elections. Voters are sick of it."

LaRose's Senate ambition puts him in the same pickle that other GOP statewide candidates have found themselves in since Trump appeared on the scene eight years ago.

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They believe they have to show proper deference — even devotion — to Trump to appease his Ohio supporters for the purpose of winning the GOP primary.

Then, once they win the primary, they have to scurry back to the center in order to be palatable to independent voters who aren't particularly inspired by the 45th president.

There's a reason they are called "independent" voters.

Looks like that good angel and bad angel will be duking it out for quite some time, at least for the next year, with LaRose's head in-between to take all the blows.

He might do well to remember what my dad would tell teenaged me when he thought I might be in danger of falling in with a bad crowd.

"Lay down with dogs," he'd say, "and you wake up with fleas."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.