WILBERFORCE, Ohio (WCMH) – The last Ohio Republican U.S. Senate debate before early voting starts next week began with tense, sometimes animated exchanges on the false claims surrounding former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.

The crowded field hoping to replace Rob Portman in November packed onto a stage at Central State University Monday night, and opening questions about the last election brought out false answers from candidates, fact checks from the moderator and woos and boos from the crowd.

Watch the entire debate in the video player above.

After opening statements, moderator Karen Kasler, statehouse bureau chief of Ohio Public Radio and TV, asked the seven candidates why they think the 2020 election was fraudulent, despite more than 60 failed lawsuits and numerous fruitless investigations and audits.

Former state GOP chair Jane Timken claimed “irregularities and fraud,” and Kasler fact-checked Dublin businessman Neil Patel when he claimed the election was stolen from Trump because of fraud in swing states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

“Just a reminder, the claim that Mr. Patel has just said has been fact-checked and no evidence has been found to support it,” Kasler said. “That was a false statement, but we’re moving on.”

Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons, who the most recent polling has pegged as the frontrunner, then claimed 5 million more people voted in 2020 than were registered. When Kasler said no evidence supports Gibbons’ claim, the crowd groaned and booed.

Gibbons cited the U.S. Census Bureau in his claim, but a USA Today fact check explains the discrepancy likely comes from “sampling error” in a Bureau survey that asked Americans if they voted in 2020.  

Also among the evidence that Trump’s loss was legitimate is the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Safety Agency saying after the election, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Following Gibbons, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel emphatically said, “The 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump,” which drew claps from the sizable – but not packed – campus theater crowd. Mandel claimed election-altering ballot harvesting in swing states, and Kasler again said no evidence supports that.

Dublin businessman Mark Pukita then called out Kasler.

“Can we just stipulate that what I’m going to say is not going to be fact-checked by you?” he said as the crowd clapped.

Pukita then falsely claimed the election was stolen, as did venture capitalist and author JD Vance after him.

One candidate breaks from election falsehoods

“Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States,” said State Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), the lone candidate Monday night to say so.

After the crowd groaned, Dolan said Republicans should be focusing on how Trump’s policies helped Ohio and preparing to defeat Biden in 2024.

“That’s what this election is about,” he said. “Looking forward.”

Later in the debate, Dolan emphasized what is legally wrong with his opponents, who claim to be “constitutional conservatives” and small government advocates, wanting to “decertify” and “overturn” the last election.

“That is in direct violation of the constitution that we just heard so eloquently described by people earlier,” he said. “The time, place, and manner is left to the states to determine who’s going to represent them and go to Washington.”

Dolan breaking with his peers, however, likely means Trump will not endorse him, which could prove costly come May 3. Of likely GOP primary voters in a February poll commissioned by NBC4, more than 6 in 10 said his endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that candidate.

Trump has even said he won’t endorse Dolan because the Cleveland Guardians, owned by Dolan’s family, changed their name last year. Dolan, however, has no formal role in the front office, criticizing the name change by calling it a consequence of “culture wars.”

Asked Monday if he can still win the race without Trump’s endorsement, Dolan said, “Absolutely, I’m going to win the race. And, I don’t know, maybe he will endorse me.”

“When he takes the time to look at all of us on this stage and see who’s actually implemented the conservative Republican ideas that he brought to Washington, I’ve done it in Ohio,” Dolan said.

The latest independent poll, an early March survey from Fox News, had Gibbons (22%) ahead of Mandel (21%) and Vance in third (11%). Other candidates polled in the single digits, including Dolan at 7%.

Monday night’s debate was the last scheduled before early voting begins next Tuesday, April 5.

The Democratic Senate candidates debated Monday morning, and the Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate Tuesday night. The Ohio Debate Commission will not hold a Republican governor debate after Gov. Mike DeWine declined to participate.