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Primary Vs. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez Could Test Trump's Sway Over Ohio GOP

Northeast Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez faces a difficult year ahead after joining nine other Republicans in voting to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Republican groups in the district have rebuked him over that vote, and a former White House aide is challenging Gonzalez in next year’s primary, with Trump’s blessing.

Although the election is a year away – and new district lines aren’t drawn yet – the race could be a test of Trump’s hold on the Republican Party in Ohio.

Gonzalez was not one of the Republicans who challenged President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory Jan. 6. A week after pro-Trump mobs stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, Gonzalez accused Trump of inciting them and voted to impeach.

The next day, Gonzalez took to conservative talk radio to defend his vote.

“We are imploring the president to help, to stand up, to help defend the United States Capitol and the United States Congress, which is under attack,” he told WHK’s Bob Frantz on Jan. 14. “We are begging, essentially, and he was nowhere to be found.”

Gonzalez said he knew many Republicans were angry with him. But he also said it was time to unite against a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress.

“And I know I got a lot of trust to rebuild, and there’s a chance I can’t do it with a lot of people. I get that. Trust me, I do,” Gonzalez said. “But let me tell you this. Every single person listening, every conservative listening right now, we have got to come together at some point.”

More than three months later, some GOP leaders in Gonzelez’s district say plenty of Republicans are not ready to join hands. Take it from Doug Deeken, chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party.

“I still get people clicking the ‘contact us’ button on our website, sending me messages saying he’s got to go,” Deeken said. “That still happens. Facebook messages, text messages, phone calls, emails. I still get them.”

The county party sent Gonzalez a letter alerting him to “the gravity of your error.” Still, that doesn’t mean the party is endorsing his opponent, Deeken said. In fact, the county party doesn’t plan to make any endorsement before the primary.

“It’s not to say that we think that Anthony Gonzalez is a terrible human being or that he’s done nothing good in office,” Deeken said. “He’s made a lot of votes that I’ve agreed with. He just made one very crucial vote that I firmly disagree with.”

Others have gone further than Deeken. The Strongsville GOP encourages its website readers to sign a petition calling on Gonzalez to resign.

“Just because the party establishment may not have the commitment or the fortitude to do that, Strongsville obviously did,” city GOP club president Shannon Burns said of the call for Gonzalez to step down. “While there may be some establishment folks that have thought differently about our decision, I can tell you this: That our supporters didn’t.”

Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel has called Gonzalez a “traitor.” Other GOP senate hopefuls have followed that lead. Mandel, former state party chair Jane Timken and Bernie Moreno all contributed to the campaign of Gonzalez’s opponent, Max Miller.

Miller worked as an advisor in the Trump White House and has the former president’s endorsement, holding a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in March.

“You have a representative in Congressman Gonzalez who represented his own interests and not the interests of his constituents,” Miller said in an interview last month on Newsmax. “That’s not what you’re going to get with me. That’s not what the 16th District constituents are going to get with me or the American people. I will not let them down, I will not let President Trump down and I will not let the American people down.”

Gonzalez has had more time to fundraise and for now maintains a cash advantage in the race. His campaign reported more than $1 million on hand at the end of March, more than twice Miller’s sum of $439,000. Former House Speaker John Boehner lent Gonzalez a hand at a March fundraiser, according to Politico.

The 16th Congressional District includes pro-Trump areas like Wayne County and suburbs that swung away from Trump in 2020, like Westlake and parts of Rocky River. But that could change when Ohio’s district lines are redrawn, meaning Gonzalez’s political future could hinge on the shape of his district.

In the 2018 GOP primary, the Ohio State football star and former NFL player defeated State Rep. Christina Hagan, who ran as a strong Trump supporter. Gonzalez won a second term in November 2020 with 63 percent of the vote – outrunning Trump, who had 56 percent in the district, according to calculations by liberal political website The Daily Kos.

He does still have Republican defenders in the district, like Westlake Republican Brad Lamb.

“Overall, I think that he still has a tremendous amount of support throughout the district,” Lamb said. “He’s done a great job as a freshman legislator for us.”

Lamb opposed a Cuyahoga County GOP resolution criticizing Gonzalez over the impeachment vote.

“It was one vote,” he said. “People may not have been happy with it, but the congressman voted his conscience. And I think in this day and age, I think that’s commendable.”

Seth Koellner with the Summit County Young Republicans opposed Gonzalez impeachment, but isn’t abandoning the incumbent. Trump lost the 2020 election, and the Republican Party should look ahead instead of behind, he said.

“I think the party really needs to move on from that,” Koellner said. “It’s in the past, and we need to focus on the future. And I think the party will be harmed irreparably if we do not do that quickly.”

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Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.