We’re about to see how much a Trump endorsement is worth.
The former president is taking aim at Republican defectors like Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted for impeachment after Donald Trump had given him a ride on Air Force One. What an ingrate, Trump railed at a late June rally, calling the 36-year-old congressman a “sellout” and “fake Republican” as the ex-president threw his endorsement in a crowded field to Max Miller, a 32-year-old former White House aide with a thin resume and a rap sheet that includes multiple charges in his home state of Ohio for assault, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
The most recent charge was in 2010 and related to a fight; Miller says he has since grown up and won’t be repeating those mistakes. Maybe so, but do Republicans really want to trade out two-term congressman Gonzalez, the son of Cuban immigrants and a former wide receiver at Ohio State before turning pro, for someone with the inexperience and background of Miller?
Until Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump, he was on the shortlist of Republicans to replace the retiring Rob Portman in next year’s Senate election. “He’s young, he’s a former NFL player, he’s telegenic, and he’s Hispanic,” said Jacob Rubashkin with Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers House races. “In a universe where Donald Trump is not around, Gonzalez would be running for the Senate—but that’s not the universe we’re in. Impeachment turned that on its head.”
Trump’s chosen replacement to represent Ohio’s 16th District worked in the White House Office of Personnel Management, where he and several other twentysomethings from the campaign drew media attention for their partying and lack of qualifications. Under scrutiny, Miller removed from social media his claim that he was a Marine recruiter. He is a former Marine reservist.
Miller rose to become director of advance for Trump and then deputy campaign director in 2020. Shortly before Trump left office, he named loyalists to several boards and commissions. Among them was Miller, appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. It is the main qualification for elective office that Miller cites.
As for his personal baggage, “that kind of stuff is ripe for opposition research,” said Rubashkin, “but do voters care? Does the Trump endorsement outweigh any questions about his history?”
Miller spent his late teens and early adulthood in skirmishes with the law, though programs for youth offenders appear to have erased much of the public record. The Washington Post reported that in 2007, the 18-year-old Miller copped to a pair of misdemeanors for striking another man in the back of the skull and then fleeing from police. Court records show that same year he confessed to speeding and noise disturbance charges. The Post found that in 2009 he got caught drinking underage, and in 2010 he pleaded to disorderly conduct over a bloody dispute in a hookah bar. The public docket indicates that, prior to reversing his “not guilty” plea, Miller faced allegations of vandalism; according to the Post, he had punched through the establishment’s glass door.
Miller grew up in wealthy Shaker Heights in a family whose patriarch, Sam Miller, was a prominent real estate developer, philanthropist, and power broker, courted by both political parties for campaign contributions. He died not long ago at age 97, his standing in the community undiminished by his grandson’s brushes with the law that the candidate wishes to dismiss as teenage shenanigans.
Miller is getting flak for spending more time at Mar-a-Lago than in northeast Ohio, and he doesn’t even live in the district he’s vying to represent. To rectify that, he just bought a house in the upscale suburb of Rocky River and announced his engagement to Emily Moreno, the daughter of Bernie Moreno, a luxury car dealer turned Blockchain executive who is running for the Senate as a Trump ally. The Miller campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this story.
In a Republican primary, Trump’s endorsement is worth more than the advantage of incumbency, said Rubashkin. “If it’s all about standing up for Trump, it’s going to be Trump’s guy who’s the champion.”
The test won’t come until the primary next year, and in the meantime, congressional district lines will be redrawn based on last year’s census data. Ohio is losing a seat, and the 16th District could absorb a neighboring district where the current representative, moderate Democrat Tim Ryan, is running for the Senate, making Gonzalez’ district more Democratic. It’s so early in the process, it’s hard to gauge, but Miller has made it clear he’ll run against Gonzalez wherever he is, Rubashkin said. “This is all about Rep. Gonzalez as a person rather than representing a particular area or district.”
Matt Dole with Politics Counsel, an Ohio communications firm that specializes in Republican campaigns, told The Daily Beast that after Gonzalez voted for impeachment, “everybody saw a primary coming, and in Ohio, it’s Donald Trump’s base versus—for want of a better word—John Kasich’s base. Those are the two wings of the party. And Kasich is persona non grata.”
The former governor has been out of step with the Republican Party in his state since the end of 2016, when he finally gave up his last stand against candidate Trump. After Kasich spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, he was censured by the state GOP. “In Ohio, the Trump base is the most significant. He brought new people into the party, and they’re not going to be for anybody else,” Dole said.
“That vote for impeachment, the base is not going to forget that,” he added.
In other states, Republicans might tout a Trump endorsement in the primary and then try to pivot away to broaden their appeal in the general election. That’s what is happening in Virginia, where billionaire investor Glenn Youngkin is running for governor—and doesn’t even mention he’s a Republican in an early ad blitz. In Ohio, the Trump brand is so strong, “you can be a Republican and not pivot away,” says Dole.
An early test is a special election on Aug. 3 in another nearby district, the 15th, to replace GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who abruptly announced he was stepping down to head the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. He endorsed a candidate of similar bearing, but Trump had other ideas, endorsing Mike Carey, a former lobbyist for a coal mining company. “Polling shows if Carey can get the word out, he can win,” said Dole. There are 14 candidates certified in the race, 12 Republicans and two Democrats.
Asked if the newly configured 16th District might make it more competitive, Dole said political handicapper Larry Sabato might move it to “Lean Republican” rather than “Solid Republican.” Not quite, says Sabato, whose “Crystal Ball” is housed at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Likely Republican,” he told The Daily Beast. “A little more competitive but they’ve [Democrats] got a long way to go” in Ohio, a state he sees as a lost cause for Dems.
He praises Gonzalez—“he has a conscience”—and he didn’t sell out for a ride on Air Force One, a perk Trump thought would ensure loyalty.
Sabato predicts Republicans are not going to nominate Trump loyalist Max Miller. “The standards are so low they’re in the basement, but they haven’t sunk to the center of the Earth,” he says. As for Gonzalez, he thinks he survives the primary challenge. “He’s not just anybody. He’s a superstar, and that makes it harder for the Republicans to ditch him.” Harder yes, but not impossible, as both political parties await the impact of an impeached one-term president’s hold on enough voters to affect election outcomes.