Russia business deals muddy GOP US Senate primary in Ohio

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FILE Ohio senatorial candidate Jane Timken listens as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman speaks to supporters at a rally in Cincinnati, March 4, 2022. As war rages in Ukraine, ties to business deals involving Russia are threatening potential political fallout to candidates in Ohio's crowded Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Several Republicans competing for the party’s nomination to run for U.S. Senate in Ohio are facing scrutiny for their ties to Russia as the country intensifies its war against Ukraine.

Much of the attention has focused on former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, whose husband's family founded a company that does business in Russia. But other candidates in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, including J.D. Vance and Mike Gibbons, also have links to business deals in Russia that could become vulnerabilities in the May 3 primary.

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While domestic issues generally dominate midterm political contests, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — with its harrowing images of civilian casualties — has become an animating subject of the competitive Senate race in Ohio, which has a large Ukrainian American population. In a race with several millionaire candidates, the war is highlighting the risks that come with being wealthy and having tangled investment interests involving foreign countries.

The easiest target has long been Timken, whose husband sits on the board of the like-named Fortune 500 ball bearing manufacturer based in North Canton, Ohio. Even before Ukraine, her adversaries sought to pin the Timken Co.'s international business dealings on Timken.

Timken Co. last week suspended its operations in Russia, where it has a manufacturing plant and an 8-year-old relationship with United Wagon Co., a Moscow-based manufacturer and servicer of freight cars. The company signed the deal in 2014, around the time Russia seized Crimea.

Conservative PACs, mostly backing Republican Josh Mandel in the race, pilloried Timken in attack ads as “shameless” for outwardly supporting Ukraine and calling for tough sanctions on Russia while making money off her investments in the company. She has reported owning roughly 2,800 shares in Timken Co., whose stock price initially rose after the Feb. 24 invasion.

Timken campaign spokesperson Mandi Merritt calls the attacks on Timken unfair.

“It’s a nonsense line of attack that Jane is somehow responsible for every business decision of a multibillion-dollar company where she never even worked,” Merritt said in a statement. “Jane’s record of standing up for Ukraine and championing Ohioans is unmatched.”

Portman, a co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, has endorsed Timken and campaigned with her around the state earlier this month.

After Timken criticized Vance for voicing indifference to the fate of Ukraine in the days leading up to the invasion, a Vance ally tweeted: "No candidate has business ties in Russia except for Jane Timken. Her husband’s company has provided steel for their tanks, rail, and military.” The attacks continued from the left, with one labor union ally trying to label Timken “Russia Jane.”

But Vance has business interests in Russia of his own.

In May 2021, he joined Peter Thiel and other prominent conservative venture capitalists and invested in the video platform Rumble, a YouTube alternative favored by the political right. After tech companies including Meta and Twitter limited Russia’s state-controlled news network RT to minimize the spread of propaganda, the Russian government announced it would move to Rumble.

“Rumble has consistently supported free speech on its platform — even speech it may find offensive,” Vance campaign spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk said in an email, adding that this is “unlike Twitter, which censors a sitting U.S. President while allowing the Chinese Communist Party, North Korea and the Ayatollah Khomeini (to name a few) to continue their propaganda.”

Gibbons, another Senate candidate, is distancing himself from a Russian business deal announced by his company, Brown Gibbons Lang & Company, in 2011. Campaign spokesperson Samantha Cotten said BGL was merely promoting the transaction of another member of the 38-company Global M&A association.

The transaction — sale of a 57% stake in a Belarusian machine-building plant to Moscow-headquartered HMS Group — “was exclusively executed by another company,” she said. HMS specializes in pipes for the Russian oil industry and one of its main customers is Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant and majority owner of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, whose operation was suspended because of the war.

Lost in the ad attacks against Timken is the fact that their intended beneficiary, Mandel, has taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Timken family members, employees and PACs over the years.

According to campaign finance data made available by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, so have many other candidates on Ohio's 2022 ballot. They include two other Senate candidates — Republican state Sen. Matt Dolan and the best known Democrat in the race, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan — as well as Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and a rival in the GOP gubernatorial primary, former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci.

Among other entanglements, the real estate company owned at the time by the family of Mandel’s then-wife, Ilana, sold off its stake in the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in 2016. The billionaire has since sold the assets.


Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Canton, Ohio.