WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s decision this week to pour $300,000 into Tuesday's congressional primary to support former Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez against state Rep. Christina Hagan means that establishment Republicans are concerned enough about the race that they have now invested more than a half a million dollars to boost Gonzalez.
“I think it indicates that they’re worried,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “I’m sure that establishment Republicans are nervous that Hagan might do better than expected in the primary.”
In all, outside groups have poured more than $600,000 into the Republican primary, with ultra-conservative groups lining up to back Hagan and more-business-friendly Republicans supporting Gonzalez. The chamber has given the most by far, filing a Federal Election Commission report Tuesday indicating that it was spending $300,000 on TV ads for Gonzalez, who played in the NFL.
Outside groups, in fact, have favored Gonzalez, giving him $597,000 of the $640,285 they had spent on the race as of Tuesday.
One, a “dark money” group called CLA, has spent $56,500 supporting Gonzalez and an additional $56,500 opposing Hagan. The group does not disclose its donors, according to the nonprofit watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
Another, Conservative Leadership PAC, has spent $92,000 opposing Hagan. That PAC is entirely funded by Ferragon Corp., a Cleveland-based steel company led by Gonzalez's father, Eduardo. The company donated $100,000 to the PAC, according to the center.
But Hagan has found allies in an organization called Drain the Swamp and in the House Freedom Fund, a political action committee linked to U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. Drain the Swamp has put $13,225 into the race to pay for mailers supporting Hagan, while the House Freedom Fund has invested $3,876.
All the outside spending for the 16th District primary has come in the past month.
The winner of the November general election will represent a northeast Ohio district that includes all of Wayne County and parts of Cuyahoga, Medina, Portage, Stark and Summit counties.
That outside groups have weighed in — and, in the chamber’s case, weighed in significantly — indicates that the race might be tight despite Gonzalez’s hefty fundraising advantage. A first-time candidate, Gonzalez has nonetheless raised more than many Ohio incumbents, having taken in $1.14 million and reporting $459,483 in the bank as of April 18. Hagan, meanwhile, had raised $397,945 as of April 18 and had $125,240 in the bank.
But both ends of the GOP spectrum say it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that Hagan, who lives near Alliance in Stark County, will upend the political establishment. Hagan, they say, has lined up the NRA endorsement, gotten enthusiastic support from tea party groups, and aligned herself with President Donald Trump in a district that he carried by 17 points in 2016.
“I think Hagan’s going to win,” said tea party leader Tom Zawistowski of Portage County.
Zawistowski said Hagan will have an advantage among undecided voters because her name is well-known in northeastern Ohio and she is a woman.
“If people walk into the polling booth on Election Day and haven’t decided who they’ll vote for, they may go for a very well-known political name,” he said.
Even those who back Gonzalez concede that Hagan has mounted an impressive bid. “She’s run a pretty good campaign,” said former Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges. "She’s got all the Trump people coming in for her; she’s got the NRA endorsement.”
Cohen said establishment Republicans believe they have a better shot of winning the general election with Gonzalez, a conservative who nonetheless takes a more moderate tone with voters than does Hagan, who notably fired an AR-15 in one of her ads.
Cohen said the primary reflects a larger fight playing out across the country between traditional conservatives and ultraconservatives such as Jordan of Urbana. Although Trump has become a symbol of that war, it predates him, Cohen said.
“The question is if 2018 is going to be the year the establishment candidates are going to make a comeback, or are voters — especially primary voters — going to be attracted to political outsiders?” he said.