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.
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 races
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.
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 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.
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.”