Traversing Ohio in a charter-style bus emblazoned with his name and the blue-and-gold colors of his alma mater, St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons is talking to voters in each of Ohio’s 88 counties in his quest to win the GOP U.S. Senate primary.
“I don’t think I could do more because I am on the road every day,” Gibbons said. “I’m going to go to every nook and cranny in this state that will listen to me.”
Considered in two recent polls as the frontrunner in a crowded GOP field vying to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, Gibbons has experienced an especially eventful week.
On March 15, he was scheduled to meet with Donald Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, according to NBC News.
Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno was the last Republican Senate candidate to met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in February. A day later, at Trump’s urging, Moreno announced he was ending his campaign.
Unlike Moreno, who was polling at the bottom of the field, Gibbons’ campaign continues to gain momentum.
In a Fox News poll released on March 7, conducted by Beacon Research and Shaw & Company Research from March 2 to 6, Gibbons led public opinion with 22 percent support, followed by former Ohio State Treasurer and Ohio State Representative Josh Mandel (20 percent), venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance (11 percent), former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken (9 percent), State Sen. Matt Dolan (7 percent), businessman Neil Patel (2 percent), and businessman Mark Pukita (1 percent).
The survey indicated that 24 percent of voters are undecided. Many supporters of Vance (66 percent), Mandel (64 percent), and Gibbons (62 percent) said that they could change their mind before the primary, which is currently slated for May 3.
A poll conducted by The Hill/NBC4i/Emerson College in late February also placed Gibbons in first place with 22.4 of the support, followed by Mandel (14.9 percent), Vance (7.7 percent), Dolan (6.2 percent), and Timken (5.7 percent).
These poll results were a dramatic change from previous surveys, all of which had showed Mandel in the lead.
Gibbons and Mandel are familiar political foes.
In 2018, Gibbons initially challenged Mandel, who was state treasurer, in the GOP Senate primary. Mandel eventually dropped out.
Trump and the GOP asked Jim Renacci, who was running for governor at the time, to switch to the Senate race. Renacci defeated Gibbons in the primary before losing to Democrat Sherrod Brown in the general election.
Now, Renacci is attempting to unseat Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in the gubernatorial primary, while Gibbons and Mandel are among six main candidates battling to prevail in the Senate primary.
The winner will likely face Democrat Tim Ryan, a northeast Ohio-based U.S. Representative, in the general election.
“Josh [Mandel] is moving in the wrong direction. I was kind of hanging right below the leader, who was Josh, and always either second or third,” Gibbons said.
“Now, in every poll, I’m either first or second, and in some polls, and the ones that we’re looking at that we feel are accurate, we’re accelerating ahead and the spread is getting wider.”
“We’ve always known that Josh would be there … as the guy to beat, and it’s kind of shaping up that way,” Gibbons added.
Since the Ohio GOP Senate race started, Gibbons has contributed $11.4 million to his mostly self-funded campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. His campaign has spent more than $11 million on ads.
A former football player at St. Ignatius and Kenyon College, Gibbons has incorporated football themes in his ads with a message touting that he is a businessman—not a politician.
Gibbons had escaped controversy throughout the duration of his campaign until March 16, when The New York Times published an article reporting that he had made racist remarks about individuals of Asian descent during a 2013 podcast.
According to that article, Gibbons said in the podcast, “I’ve often thought that when I’ve run into Asians, they’re all—you know, if you’ve ever read ‘The Bell Curve’, it’s a book, a very controversial book … and it said that the smartest people in the world, as far as measurable I.Q., were Ashkenazi Jews. And then, right below them, was basically everybody in China, India and, you know, throughout the Asian countries.”
Co-authored by Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein, “The Bell Curve” contends that intelligence is determined by race.
In the podcast, Gibbons added that one of his business school classes was composed of “mostly Asians.” He also said he was often impressed by his Asian classmates, and that he thought they “were incredibly bright.”
The New York Times report received significant attention on March 16. Gibbons’ campaign spokesperson Samantha Cotton told the newspaper that Gibbons was “discussing the difference in educational structure and attainment that he experienced in both business and graduate school in relation to China.”
In a two-part Twitter post, Gibbons said, “The New York Times and the liberal media want to cancel me and anyone else who speaks their mind on China or anything their woke minds decide to go after.
“Trump was right, America needs a foreign policy that is tough on China. That’s exactly what I will fight for as your next Senator from Ohio.”
Gibbons served as Ohio finance co-chair for Donald Trump for President in 2016 and contributed to the Trump re-election campaign in 2020. Endorsed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Gibbons is stocking his team with members who have ties to Trump, who won Ohio by 8 points in 2020.
Former 2020 Donald Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who served as Stepien’s deputy during the Trump campaign, joined the Gibbons campaign in February. Since last April, longtime GOP consultant Mike Biundo has served as a senior adviser to Gibbons. The trio had also worked together on Trump’s 2016 general election campaign.
Stepien was national field director on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and political director at the Trump White House. He took over as Trump’s campaign manager in June 2020.
Some of Gibbons’ critics claim he is just another affluent businessman using his wealth to buy a Senate seat.
A native of Parma, around 10 miles south of Cleveland, Gibbons—who frequently talks about his childhood growing up in a blue-collar family and starting what is now one of the Midwest’s largest investment banks with just a desk and a phone—vehemently disagrees.
“I never inherited a nickel, and I’m running against a lot of people that have inherited things, and now, we are treated the same way because we happen to be in the same place right now,” Gibbons said. “But that’s why I believe in the American dream.”
“I could never have accomplished what I’ve been able to accomplish but for this great country, and people need to hear that story because they could do it themselves,” Gibbons added. “I have confidence in the American people.”
Time will tell if The New York Times article about Gibbons’ comments in the 2013 podcast will derail his campaign’s momentum. Several candidate forums are scheduled in upcoming weeks, including a March 28 debate organized by the Ohio Debate Commission at Central State University in Wilberforce.
As Trump’s potential endorsement hangs in the balance, Gibbons continues to travel across the state, talking to supporters and voters who are undecided.
“I do not believe in a prevent defense,” Gibbons said. “If you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, you learned that a long time ago that it doesn’t work. I’m going to play just like I did in the first quarter. In fact, I’m going to play harder.”