CLEVELAND (WCMH) — It has been 17 months and 19 days since former President Donald Trump lost an election that the top federal cybersecurity agency said was “the most secure in American history.”

But when five candidates running for Ohio’s Republican nomination for U.S. Senate were asked Monday night whether Trump should move on from his loss, four did not raise their hands.

“We have to get to the bottom of what happened in 2020,” venture capitalist and author JD Vance explained to moderators in the Monday debate in Cleveland co-hosted by NBC4.

Former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken said, “Our democracy is at stake,” while investment banker Mike Gibbons, who the most recent polling said is the frontrunner, said the 2020 election will be “fully investigated” if he is elected.

Going the farthest was former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who said, “I believe this election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.”

Mandel’s confident assertion, however, along with the still hands of three of his opponents, stands in the face of numerous post-election findings that Trump lost a solid contest.

Chief among them, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Safety Agency said after the election, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Numerous audits and court cases in multiple swing states also found no evidence to give the election to Trump. And in Ohio, where Trump won by eight points, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in early 2021 the state “ran the most successful election we’ve ever had.”

The Trump factor

The former president has been an undercurrent to this ocean of candidates (two others didn’t poll high enough to be invited to Monday’s debate), and his support could be decisive.

Of likely GOP primary voters in a February poll commissioned by NBC4, 61.5 percent said his endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that candidate in the May 3 primary.

Mandel positioned himself in Monday’s debate as the most Trump-like, “steel-spined” candidate who won’t cut deals with Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate.

“I think there’s a fork in the road right now in the Republican party,” he said, where more Trump-critical Senators like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney need to be “eradicated” from the GOP.

“I’m going to Washington to be reinforcements for fighters,” Mandel said. “Fighters like Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, and Donald Trump.”

Vance, who was a Trump critic during the 2016 election cycle, said his past remarks were “stupid” and Trump was “the greatest president of my lifetime.”

Timken lauded her work for Trump’s 2020 campaign as state GOP chair speaking at rallies, writing op-eds, and putting 150,000 miles on her car, and Gibbons mentioned his fundraising efforts for Trump in 2016.

“I’m doing everything I can to earn his support,” Mandel said.

The only candidate to raise his hand in response to if Trump should move on was state Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), a more moderate Republican who Trump has already said he won’t endorse.

“Of course I can win,” Dolan said of his chances without Trump’s blessing. The most recent independent poll, by Fox News in early March, however, put him in fifth place with 7 percent of likely voters.

Easing pain at the pump

Directly hurting all Ohioans right now is the price of gas, making driving and the supply chain more costly nationwide.

Induced by inflation and low supply, gas prices tracked by NBC4 show the average cost for a gallon in the Columbus area is just under $4, and candidates took out their fuel frustrations on the debate’s first issue question.

All five candidates put at least part of the blame on President Joe Biden for his platform and policies, although the U.S. Energy Information Administration lists multiple industry and governmental reasons why gas prices fluctuate.

“When entrepreneurs and owners of fossil fuel companies hear that the president wants them out of business, they don’t make the kind of investments, they don’t take the kind of risk they would take normally,” Gibbons said. “And they stop producing.”

U.S. oil production fell dramatically when COVID-19 first shut down travel two years ago, per the EIA, but it has had a staggered recovery since.

A graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows domestic crude oil production fell in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has had a staggered recovery since. (

“This is harming those who can least afford it,” Timken said.

Vance said the U.S. should expand the Keystone XL pipeline, a Trump policy that Biden stopped, and make it easier to invest in American oil companies instead of ones overseas.

Gibbons, Dolan, and Mandel said the U.S. should ramp up oil and gas production.

“We should be drilling for all the oil and gas we can here in America,” Mandel said. “In fact, if you took the state of Ohio, the state of West Virginia, and the state of Pennsylvania … and combine them into a region, that region would be the third-largest producer of natural gas in the world.”

America’s role in Ukraine

One of the most serious powers given to a U.S. Senator is a voice in military escalation, and the winner of the Republican primary will be one election from that responsibility.

All five candidates said the U.S. should provide more military aid to Ukraine as it fights the Russian invasion that has killed at least 925 Ukrainian civilians, according to the United Nations’ latest count.

Mandel, a former Marine, said the U.S. should be sending air defense missiles and radios, and Dolan added the U.S. should send more humanitarian aid as well.

But no candidate said the U.S. should escalate to the point it joins the war, such as using American pilots to form a no-fly zone around Ukraine, which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he is “desperate” for.

“I don’t want to see American soldiers’ boots on the ground in Ukraine,” said Gibbons, who has a son in the U.S. Navy. “I don’t want my son flying around the Ukraine.”

“We should not be sending our boys and girls over there,” Mandel said, “but we should be sending our defense systems so innocent women and children and families, Ukrainians, can defend themselves.”

Vance agreed with helping arm Ukraine, but he made a point of balancing domestic issues with international ones, saying, “We have our own problems in the United States to focus on.”

“What I would do in this moment is premise, condition further Ukrainian aid (from Congress) on support for our border and support for our problems,” he said.

The candidates also criticized the Biden administration’s reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalations leading up to the late February invasion.

“Joe Biden’s weakness has invited Putin’s aggression,” Timken said. “We should have been putting sanctions on Russia long before the invasion.”

Mandel judged Biden’s diplomatic dealings, and Gibbons said the U.S. “dithered while Ukraine was under potential invasion.”

“You don’t send 190,000 troops around a border and think they’re there for summer camp,” Gibbons said. “We should have been sending armaments in there. I think we need to arm them to the teeth.”

The next GOP Senate debate will be Monday, March 28, from 7-8:30 p.m., hosted by the Ohio Debate Commission. Other candidates Neil Patel and Mark Pukita will join the stage at Central State University outside Dayton.

Watch the full, one-hour NBC4 debate from Monday night at the link here.