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Republicans square off in Ohio Senate race debate

From the war in Ukraine to how badly they want Donald Trump's endorsement, Republican candidates for Ohio's open Senate seat answered questions from voters Monday.

WILBERFORCE, Ohio — Republican candidates for U.S. Senate discussed a variety of issues Monday at Central State University, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the separation of church and state and the undignified tone of the campaign.

Republican state Sen. Matt Dolan, former Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, Westerville business man Neil Patel, CEO and owner Mark Pukita, former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, and "Hillbillly Elegy" author JD Vance took questions from Ohio Statehouse Bureau Chief Karen Kasler that had been submitted by Ohio voters.

The candidates are running for the seat held by Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is retiring following this term.

Below are several issues discussed and the candidates' responses.

ISSUE: Was the 2020 president election stolen from former President Donald Trump?

Jane Timken: "There is no doubt in my mind there were irregularities and fraud in 2020."

Neil Patel: "I think that it was stolen."

Mike Gibbons: "There are problems with this election... We're going to have to investigate these."

Josh Mandel: "The 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump... We cannot move on until 2020 has been investigated."

Mark Pukita: "I've been saying the election has been stolen since two or three days since the election."

J.D. Vance: "I think the election was stolen from Donald Trump."

Matt Dolan: "Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States. My problem is that he is a failed president."

Many of the candidates -- not including Dolan -- elaborated on their theories about the stolen election, repeating claims about "ballot harvesting," large-scale voter fraud in swing states and other debunked theories. In each case Kasler interjected at the end of their answers to tell the audience that the candidates were repeating allegations that had been proven false. In some cases the audience booed when she did so.

ISSUE: Under what circumstances would you support U.S. military intervention in Ukraine and do you support a no-fly zone over the country?

Matt Dolan: "Currently there is no condition in which I would put American boots on the ground." Dolan said he favors sending humanitarian aid and supporting Ukraine and our allies in ways that do not escalate the conflict.

Mark Pukita: "We need to use this as an example of how Europe needs to stand up and take care of itself." Pukita said he would not support sending troops or enforcing a no-fly zone. Instead he believes the United States should move more of its troops into positions to defend against potential aggression from China.

Neil Patel: "I think we try to support them and do whatever we can but I don't want to put our boys and girls there."

Josh Mandel: "To be clear we should never be putting our boys and girls on the ground there in this Russia Ukraine conflict or in the air." Mandel also emphasized that the United States should not lose sight of the threat posed by China.

J.D. Vance: "At the end of the day it is not our job, it is not our business." The United States should focus on its own issues instead of intervening in another foreign war, Vance said. He opposes sending troops or enforcing a no-fly zone.

Mike Gibbons: "I don't think we should put any American boots on the ground in Ukraine. I don't think there should be any American pilots flying over Ukraine."

Jane Timken:  "As a mother watching what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine breaks my heart. And this is all a result of Joe Biden's weakness. His weakness invited this invasion." Timken said she favors sending equipment to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, but would not support sending troops.

Kasler also asked Vance, Gibbons and Timken if they would divest themselves of investments they hold in Russia. Each said they did not have any Russian investments and Timken added that Timken Steel had ceased all activity in Russia.

ISSUE: How would you preserve the constitutional separation of church and state?

J.D. Vance: Vance said banning the expression of Christian faith from the public square does not separate religion from public life, but instead supplants it with secular humanism, which he blames for misguided notions about gender identity and other issues. Instead, the United States should encourage people to use faith to guide their public service, he said. "The faith of our people is an incredible reservoir of strength."

Mark Pukita: "We need to have a Judeo Christian foundation in our country in order for it to work." The founding fathers built our constitutional rights on God-given rights, so separating faith from public values is not possible, he said.

Josh Mandel: "Our nation, our republic, was founded on a bedrock of Judeo- Christian values. Not Muslim values, not atheism, but Judeo Christian ethics." Mandel described the current political struggle in America as a fight between good and evil. "We should be instilling faith in the classroom, the work place and everywhere in society."

ISSUE: The candidates in this race appear to be running hard to win the endorsement of former President Trump. Can you win without that endorsement?

Matt Dolan: "There are people up on this stage fighting for one vote and that person doesn't even vote in Ohio." Dolan said he is instead focusing on winning the votes of Ohio voters with his genuine conservative credentials.

Neil Patel: "President Trump, I like him, his policies are very good and if the president endorses anyone they will get stronger support. I don't think I'm going to get his endorsement but we're going to win this election."

Mark Pukita - "I think endorsements are ridiculous. Think about it. Someone goes and gets someone to tell you who to vote for and most of the time they're out of state. What do they know about Ohio and Ohio problems? I say if you don't have policies you go get endorsements."

ISSUE: The tone of this race has been described as a slugfest and the campaign commercials have been notoriously rough. Is this a dignified way to run a campaign?

J.D. Vance: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Politics is a rough and tumble business." Vance said he believes some of the attacks on him have been ridiculous, such as claims that he is not a true Trump supporter, but if candidates can't handle tough political campaigns they should not run.

Mike Gibbons: "I found myself in first place in the polls and there are some people up here who have never been in second place in the polls. You're going to attack, I'm used to it now."

Jane Timken: Timken called out the near physical altercation between Mandel and Gibbons at another recent debate as "childish behavior." "That's  unacceptable in a US senate race."

Josh Mandel: "I'm a fighter and I'm never going to apoligze for being a fighter. When I go to Washington I will be unafraid." He said he will fight Democrats as well as what he repeatedly called "squishy RINO Republicans" who don't pursue real conservative agendas. 

Mark Pukita: "Dignity and decorum. that's the last thing we need right now. We've got real problems."

Matt Dolan: Dolan described the difference between the performance of campaigning and the policy work of elected officials. The undignified attacks voters have seen in this race are part of that campaign performance, he said. "But you don't have to do it by destroying the other side's character."

Neil Patel: "I am the only candidate to get endorsement from almighty God."

Watch the debate: 

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