Mike Carey
Mike Carey, Republican candidate for the 15th Congressional District of Ohio, talks to a supporter before a Republican club meeting in Powell, Ohio on August 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Donald Trump might have left the White House in January, but he is still very much in charge of the Republican Party. In fact, he has positioned himself as something of a kingmaker in this year’s off-cycle elections.

Take, for instance, the Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Youngkin. The former private equity executive has tried to subtly distance himself from Trump to win moderate Republicans and Democrats in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia, but he’s still had to send dog whistles to the former president’s base—including by making “election integrity” and critical race theory a centerpiece of his campaign. Simply put, there was no political path forward for him without becoming, at least in part, a mouthpiece for Trump’s agenda.

But while Youngkin might be the most nationally prominent Trump acolyte seeking elected office on November 2, he’s not the only one. The longtime Ohio coal lobbyist Mike Carey is also trying to ride the Trumpian wave.

“He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” reads Trump’s June statement on Carey’s bid to win a House seat representing Ohio’s 15th District.

Carey, the Republican nominee in the up-for-grabs congressional race, has stationed Trump’s stamp of approval as the centerpiece of his otherwise lackadaisical campaign. On his campaign website homepage, he has loud banners, a video, and a slogan (“PRO-TRUMP. AMERICA FIRST.”) dedicated to the former president, as well as a screenshot of the endorsement itself. Ahead of the August 3 primary, he held a tele-rally with Trump, saying he was honored “to be the only candidate, the absolute only candidate, with his endorsement.” On Tuesday, Carey will run against Democrat Allison Russo, a state lawmaker.

The special election is taking place after the former district Representative Steve Stivers resigned his seat in May to become CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. He had held the spot since 2010.

The district resembles a patchwork, stretching from wealthy Columbus suburbs to hollowed-out sections of Appalachia in the southeast. Because of this geographic diversity, the area’s politics are essentially bifurcated: There’s a “blue ring” around Columbus—a liberal college town—and then deeply red enclaves in the rural heart of the district.

If it seems like an odd district, that’s because it is. It was drawn up as part of a Republican gerrymandering scheme ahead of the 2012 election. Since then, political analysts have generally pigeonholed the district as a Republican safe seat. Indeed, that assumption might play into Carey’s demonstrated complacency.

But that assumption might be misguided. In fact, next week’s special election holds the promise of potentially loosening the stranglehold, for a few reasons.

For starters, Russo has run a strong campaign. She has “walked a real tightrope, keeping it very, very focused on critical local issues,” says Rick Neal, who ran for the seat as a Democrat in 2018 but lost. Her policies—from more affordable health care and education to better-supported family farms—should attract both Democratic and Republican pockets.

Another encouraging nugget of evidence regarding the strength of her candidacy: She has twice won in a battleground contest for a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. Her ability to clinch power in the state’s 24th District was “considered an upset,” Stephen Mockabee, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, told me. (He also lives in the district.) Before Russo’s win, a Republican had comfortably occupied that seat since 2012.

At the same time, Carey has run a flimsy campaign. The Ohio State graduate’s messaging rests almost entirely on his Trump endorsement and demonization of Democrats, with a special emphasis on Nancy Pelosi.

He also has a seriously checkered past. In 2018, he helped orchestrate the biggest public corruption scandal Ohio has ever seen. Murray Energy—the company for which Carey was chief lobbyist—assisted in a bribery scheme pioneered by Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, designed to win control of the House and pass a bill that would wind up benefiting Carey’s company. Carey was also recently embroiled in the sexual harassment scandal associated with the Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, whom he counts as a friend. He has done little to rub out either of these black marks—and he does not help his case by refusing to participate in media interviews or debates with Russo. Instead, he is banking on Trump’s support to get him over the finish line. It might work. “Trump is still very popular, and his endorsement carries a lot of weight” in the district, Mockabee said.

Indeed, the presidential election results tell a similar story. Pickaway County, which lies entirely in the district, saw votes for Trump climb from 69.2 percent to 72.9 percent between 2016 and 2020. For these voters, Carey’s claim to a Trump stamp is a clear signal that he is the right candidate. (Note the obsequious messaging: “We have the blueprint to build a booming economy. President Trump handed it to us.”)

Carey is not the only Republican banking on Trump’s seal of approval. So, too, are former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor of Arkansas, and Representative Mo Brooks, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama in 2022. Brooks recently made headlines after he denied any involvement in planning the January 6 riots but then told a local news site that he would be “proud” if his staff had played a role in orchestrating the Capitol attack.

The former president’s motivation behind the endorsements might be twofold, Rick Neal told me. First, it’s about self-image. “He wants to be able to say afterwards, ‘Oh, I endorsed this guy and look, he won, so I’m awesome.’” Second, the endorsements are transactions aimed at buttressing Trump’s power over the GOP. Mockabee added that if Trump intends to run again in 2024, he will “certainly want to have as many allies as he can.”

But Trump’s support for Carey might also come with a paradox: While Trump’s endorsement could boost Carey’s base of supporters, it will surely also “drive turnout on the Democratic side,” Neal said. Indeed, part of the motivation for Russo allies is that “they’d like to defeat somebody that’s embraced Trump so clearly,” Mockabee said. In this way, the race could be characterized as a test of Trump’s influence: Does he help GOP candidates more than he hurts them—or vice versa?

The precise dynamics of these competing forces will only make themselves known on Election Day—and special elections are famously difficult to predict because of lower turnout. A recent poll by Emerson College and NBC4 showed Carey with an 11-point lead on Russo. Yet 11 percent of respondents were still undecided. In other words, the race could go either way. In any case, either outcome might well be indicative of the nature of Trump’s current influence over the electorate.

Ella Creamer

Ella Creamer is an intern at Politico. She is a former intern at the Washington Monthly.