COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Mike Gibbons, a Republican running for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2022, did not earn a penalty flag on a recent political play, but his campaign filming an ad at a local public school’s football field may not be without issue.

Gibbons’ latest campaign commercial, an attack ad aimed at challenger JD Vance, was filmed on the Whitehall-Yearling High School football field in suburban Columbus. The ad, which hit TVs Thursday and is titled “Safer and Stronger,” uses Whitehall’s football stadium as a backdrop as the narrator asks, “Who’s cheering for the wrong team? JD Vance.”

Clips of Vance criticizing former President Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election then appear on the scoreboard before Gibbons is seen standing on an end zone saying, “JD Vance is not on our team. … I approve this message because President Trump fought for you. I’ll do the same.”

The ad does not identify Whitehall’s stadium as the location, and the camera’s focus partially blurs the white “WHITEHALL” on black paint in the end zone. But an eye familiar with the field design and landmarks around the stadium can deduce where Gibbons is.

A still frame from Ohio U.S. Senate candidate Mike Gibbons’ campaign ad shows part of “WHITEHALL” painted on an end zone on the high school’s football field. (Screenshot/Gibbons for Ohio)
Landmarks including the “WHITEHALL” end zone and structures on the bottom right of this 2019 photo match the football field to the one used in Ohio U.S. Senate candidate Mike Gibbons’ campaign ad. (Whitehall-Yearling Rams Athletics/Facebook)

Is that legal?

Although Gibbons used public school grounds to film the ad, the state agency that regulates uses of public funds and facilities for political campaigns says he likely did not break the law.

Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber spokesperson Allie Dumski said if Whitehall permits equal access to its field and followed its established policies in renting to Gibbons’ campaign, “this is unlikely to be problematic.”

Whitehall City Schools spokesperson Ty Debevoise said the district frequently rents out its athletic facilities to help fund sports programs, and Gibbons’ ad “was purposefully shot in a more generic way so there was no obvious features like our logo or mascot present.”

“This is important as we, as a school district, do not endorse any political party or politician,” he continued. “This commercial is really no different and shouldn’t be seen as such.”

Debevoise said the district charged Gibbons’ campaign $300 for roughly an hour on the field, a prorate of the $1,200 charged for four-hour blocks.

Phil Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission, said nothing in state election law discusses this situation.

In a statement, Gibbons spokesperson Samantha Cotten said all of the campaign’s TV ads have been filmed at Ohio football stadiums, but she did not say why Whitehall’s stadium in particular was chosen for this most recent ad.

No legal trouble, but an ‘ick factor’

Patrick Quinn, an attorney for Columbus firm Brunner Quinn who specializes in election and campaign finance law, said he is not aware of anything Gibbons’ ad specifically violates because, “He’s taking advantage of a service or a resource that’s made generally available to the public, pursuant to a policy.”

“Were I advising him,” Quinn added, however, “I’d probably tell him not to do it because the optics aren’t great.”

Quinn said the ad helps skirt legal murkiness by portraying the location as a generic football field and not suggesting Whitehall City Schools is endorsing the campaign. But using public school facilities for a political ad, he noted, has an “ick factor” to it.

“If I were advising either the campaign or the school district,” he said, “I’d probably tell them go find somewhere else, go find a public park or whatever.”

One election law scenario Quinn said comes up with some regularity is people who are already public employees campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime, such as making political phone calls from their offices.

“That’s obviously a big, big clear no-no,” he said, “but that’s not quite this … where you’ve got the campaign renting space from the public office.”

Previous ads from this year show Gibbons, a Cleveland banker who played college football, inside the football stadium at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. But like with the Whitehall ad, OWU is not identified, and it’s also a private school.

Half-million-dollar ad buy

Gibbons’ ad attacking Vance, an author and venture capitalist from Cincinnati with significant political action committee backing, hit cable and broadcast airwaves statewide on Thursday, according to a campaign news release.

This latest $550,000 ad buy is part of a larger $10 million buy that will keep Gibbons on the air through the May 3 primary election.

Recent polls have consistently shown Gibbons trailing Vance and the frontrunning former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel among decided voters.

Other Republicans running in the Senate primary include former state party chair Jane Timken; state Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians; and Cleveland auto dealer Bernie Moreno.

The general election winner on Nov. 8 will replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.