Wellington, Ohio (CNN)Former President Donald Trump kicked off his revenge tour against Republicans who defied him in the aftermath of the 2020 election on Saturday, using a sizable event here in Lorain County to lambast Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez for voting to impeach him earlier this year.
The effort to oust the Republicans who crossed him will be one of the biggest tests of Trump’s post-presidential power, assessing whether he still has the sway with base Republican voters that he enjoyed during his four years in the White House.
And on Saturday in Ohio, Trump looked to remind voters of Gonzalez’s impeachment vote, and boost Max Miller, a former Trump aide who is challenging the congressman in the district’s Republican primary next year.
“Max’s opponent is a guy named Anthony Gonzalez, who’s bad news. He’s a grandstanding RINO, not respected in DC, who voted for the unhinged, unconstitutional illegal impeachment witch hunt,” Trump said, mocking Gonzalez for, as he claimed, regularly calling the White House to fly on Air Force One when Trump would come to Ohio. “He’s a sellout, he’s a fake Republican, and a disgrace to your state, I will tell you that.”
Trump tried — without irony — to claim impeachment was “not the reason” he made this his first campaign-style rally since the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, but much of his critique of Gonzalez focused on how the congressman was more in line with pro-impeachment Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney than Miller.
Miller, who spoke before Trump, heralded the former President — “Love that guy,” he proclaimed — and argued that Gonzalez’s vote is a “betrayal he can never turn back from and he should have to answer that day, after day, after day.”
And when Trump called him on stage, the Republican candidate said he had “never had a greater role model” than Trump.
“Period,” he said. “Bar none.”
While Trump cheered earlier this year as Republicans in the Ohio congressional district erupted in anger toward Gonzalez, time has helped the Republican congressman, with even his most ardent opponents admitting that the furor around his vote has since dissipated, as voters go about their daily lives and, in part, forget about the outrages of early 2021.
“If the election was (months ago), I do believe Gonzalez would have lost,” said Jim Renacci, a longtime Ohio Republican who is mounting a primary challenge against incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine. “If the election was today, he is probably still in a danger zone… I think it would be a very tough race for him today, but he has got a year to prove himself out and voters do forget.”
But Trump’s goal this weekend was to make sure voters don’t forget, and much of the rally — from the other speakers to the former President himself — focused on his grievances with the 2020 election.
Whether Trump’s strategy works is an open question. Many of the voters at the Trump rally came to Wellington from hundreds of miles away to see Trump and knew nothing about the man the former President was targeting. And even among those voters from the district, few knew Miller beyond the campaign signs scattered around the Lorain County Fairgrounds.
Some, like Carolyn Kovac, a 77-year-old from Jackson Township who backed Gonzalez in 2020, remained angry at him. “He turned on Trump, so he turned on me when he did that,” she said. But most of the speakers on stage Saturday night didn’t mention Miller or Gonzalez, instead focusing almost entirely on one man: Trump.
Gonzalez remains strident
Gonzalez has stood his ground throughout the political fracas, arguing that Trump’s rhetoric ahead of the January 6 insurrection and the fact that Trump did little to stop those actions swayed him to back the impeachment charges. And he has doubled down: Much to the dismay of local Republicans, Gonzalez also voted to establish a bipartisan commission on the insurrection.
In a statement to CNN about the Trump rally, Gonzalez’s congressional campaign said the congressman was “focusing on issues that matter to the people of Northeast Ohio” like “strengthening our economy, fighting back against the Chinese Communist Party and its unfair trade practices, serving our veterans and providing the highest level of constituent services.”
“Max Miller isn’t fit to represent our community in Congress, and the campaign, as it develops, will bear this out,” the campaign said.
The predicament the congressman, who initially made a name for himself as a standout wide receiver at Ohio State University and later in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, finds himself in highlights the broader divides inside the Republican Party, pitting the one-time Trump supporter whose support for the former President has waned against those who remain loyal to the Republican leader.
Dave Handwerk, the mayor of Orrville, Ohio, a town in Gonzalez’s district, has stood by his congressman in the face of withering criticism, arguing that the blowback his representative has received is a symbol of the “sad state of affairs” inside the Republican Party.
“If the Republican Party means you have to be a Trump supporter, I don’t know what that means for me anymore,” said Handwerk, a 68-year-old mayor who has been a Republican his whole life. “For me, it just means I don’t know where the Republican Party is going anymore.”
Gonzalez has also responded to the blowback by raisin
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