Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose walks tightrope ahead of Tuesday’s GOP primary

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In the weeks after the 2020 presidential election, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose was clear: He had faith in Ohio’s election results and little patience for politicians of either party who make baseless claims of election wrongdoing.

“I think it’s irresponsible when Republicans say an election was stolen and don’t have evidence,” LaRose told journalists with the Cleveland Plain Dealer in mid-November 2020 as then-President Donald Trump refused to concede his loss and seethed about widespread fraud.

Eighteen months later, Trump is still raging about fraud, but LaRose has embraced the former President’s endorsement of his reelection bid ahead of Tuesday’s primary in the Buckeye State.

LaRose, who is seeking a second term as Ohio’s election chief, also has struck a sharper and more partisan tone. He’s tweeted that “President Trump is right to say voter fraud is a serious problem.” And he’s suggested that Democrats would undermine secure elections in the state should they win top slots in Ohio.

His shifting rhetoric illustrates the tightrope the former state senator is walking in a state where the main event in Tuesday’s primary is the crowded, ugly and expensive brawl for the GOP nomination to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Rob Portman.

“This is a person who absolutely billed himself as a call-the-balls-and-the-strikes, fair election administrator,” David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, said of LaRose and his pitch to Ohio voters four years ago.

“He presented himself as above petty, partisan politics,” Niven added. “To go from that to playing footsie with election deniers is a real transformation.”

In a statement to CNN, LaRose campaign spokesman Adam Rapien said: “The Secretary is proud to have received President Trump’s endorsement and agrees with him that there are a number of other states that need to fortify their election security laws and protocols.”

“Ohio’s elections are secure, accessible, and accurate, which is precisely why President Trump is backing Secretary LaRose in Tuesday’s election,” he added.

LaRose also sided with Trump in endorsing author and venture capitalist JD Vance in the crowded GOP Senate primary. Multiple contenders had jockeyed for Trump’s endorsement in that race before the former President gave the nod to the “Hillbilly Elegy” author.

The secretary of state’s position reflects the challenges GOP incumbents who defended the 2020 election results face as Trump seeks to remake the Republican Party in his image, political observers say.

Secretary of state elections often are sleepy, low-profile affairs. But around the country, sitting secretaries of state are facing challenges this year from candidates who question the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

In 2018, LaRose ran unopposed for his party’s nomination.

This time around, LaRose, a 43-year-old former Army Green Beret, faces a primary challenge from former state lawmaker John Adams, who has expressed doubts that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.

The winner in the GOP contest will face Democrat Chelsea Clark, who sits on the city council in a Cincinnati-area suburb and is running unopposed for her party’s nomination.

While LaRose might not be household name, Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California’s law school at Irvine, said the Republican has had a national “reputation as a fair shooter.”

His sharpened rhetoric, Hasen said, “shows just how hard it is for Republicans to take a principled stand on fair elections. It’s sad and shows the danger of these times.”

LaRose, who supported Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, is the only incumbent state election chief to win Trump’s endorsement to date. He also represents a state Trump won comfortably in 2020.

In Georgia, by contrast, current GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger earned Trump’s ire after refusing to “find” the votes to overturn President Joe Biden’s narrow victory there. That led to Trump endorsing Rep. Jody Hice, who embraced the former President’s effort to overturn the 2020 election and is among Raffensperger’s opponents in the May 24 primary.

As he works to burnish his conservative bona fides, Raffensperger has zeroed in on allegations of noncitizens attempting to cast ballots in the Peach State. He also has called for a state constitutional amendment to ban noncitizens from voting, although that prohibition already is enshrined in state law.

In addition to his role as elections chief, LaRose is part of the GOP majority on a new redistricting commission. He joined his fellow Republicans in approving state legislative maps that the Ohio Supreme Court has rejected as partisan gerrymanders that violate the state constitution.

In response, LaRose has said he would not oppose impeaching the court’s Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor for siding with Democrats to reject the maps.

At a recent rally in Delaware, Ohio, Trump specifically touted LaRose’s “fantastic job on redistricting” as a reason for GOP voters to back him.

Election observers say LaRose’s transformation might be less about any fears of stumbling in Tuesday’s primary and more about the future of the Republican Party in the Buckeye State and his place in it should he seek higher office.

One possibility: a challenge to US Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat on the ballot in 2024. LaRose has not tipped his hand, saying he’s focused on his current job.

Democrats already have begun to look ahead to the potential 2024 Senate matchup and go on the attack.

“Ohioans can’t trust Frank LaRose to care about anything but himself and a Senate race he’ll lose in two years,” Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Matt Keyes said in a statement.

“Rather than do his job and stand up for election integrity or pass fair maps, LaRose is busy falling in line behind Republican politicians who lie about elections being stolen and attack Ohioans’ right to vote, Keyes added.

The rough-and-tumble Senate primary has made clear to LaRose and other Republicans where the Ohio GOP is headed, said Niven, the Cincinnati-area political scientist.

LaRose, he said, “is caught in the generational transition” between Ohio’s establishment Republicans who “hand out pie recipes instead of lists of enemies” on the campaign trail and a new breed of firebrands in the Trump mold.

“Looking at our US Senate race, which is a take-no-prisoners, speak-no-truth election,” Niven added, LaRose is “seeing where the future of the party is.”

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