For most of the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon — with the exception of Mandel, who called Gonzalez a “traitor” that “spit in Donald Trump’s face” — the candidates who took the stage to speak were lesser lights with little chance. As the people ate their box lunches, they listened to Senate candidate Mark Pukita (“if you’re a Republican and you didn’t vote to object to the certification of the Arizona and Pennsylvania election results, you need to be primaried … they need to go”), gubernatorial candidate Joe Blystone (“the only way we can change the system is take over the system”) and congressional candidate Jonah Schulz (he called DeWine “our tyrannical governor”). Late adds and slot-fillers included somebody from a Republican club in a town near Columbus, a congressional candidate from the other side of Cleveland and a congressional candidate from … Georgia. And Bob Frantz again — the local radio personality. “I can’t smell freedom through face diapers,” he said.
Owens and Gaetz, when they finally took the stage well into the afternoon, felt like relief.
“Factually speaking, we are producing the dumbest kids that have ever lived in America,” she told the crowd that had given her a standing ovation and would give her another when she finished her less-than-an-hour-long speech-plus-question-and-answer-session for which Burns’ Better Ohio PAC had cut her a check for $30,000. “But now you can major in gender studies, which is interesting, because that should be five minutes in kindergarten — two genders!”
Gaetz lauded the ways and aims of Burns and his group. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party, and I’m a Donald Trump Republican!” he said. “The way forward is not a repackaged version of Paul Ryan’s ‘Better Way.’ And it’s certainly not the Green New Deal and the socialist way. Isn’t it obvious by now? It is our America First ideas, not theirs, that fill the rallies and sell the tickets. I’m told that the Strongsville GOP has never sold more tickets than for today’s event. Congratulations to all of you!”
Boebert, though? A no-show.
I’ve talked to some people who heard from some people who grumbled about the rejiggered, less appealing run of show, but the people I talked to that day at the event seemed unbothered by the absence of Boebert or any of the other candidates who were supposed to have been there. No complaints of a bait and switch. No requests for refunds. And if people were angry, at least from what I heard, it wasn’t at Burns. “People are upset at the candidates that didn’t show up,” Dakota Sawyer told me. “Some people chickened out, and they’re going to take a hit for it,” Steve Kraus said. When I caught up with Gaetz in a post-speech scrum of enthusiastic selfie-seekers, he feigned ignorance that his presence might have been a reason. “They should’ve come,” he said. “There were a lot of great folks here. We had a great time.”
“It is head-scratching,” King, the conservative activist who dubbed Burns “Scammin’ Shannon,” told me this week. “The people on the right, you say you’re the smart ones, and the Democrats are dumb. You say you’re against the swamp. Yet you register no anger towards a guy that misled you. This is what the swamp thrives and survives on!”
The next day, Jeff Darcy, the editorial cartoonist from the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, sketched for the newspaper a caricature of Burns and opined that the Strongsville GOP “now appears to be acting more like a de facto Trumplican cult.”
Two weeks after that, Martin Schutte, another plaintiff in another lawsuit against Burns, sent an email to members of the Strongsville GOP. Schutte recently shared it with me. “I doubt all of you know that Shannon Burns robbed his employee’s (sic) of pay that they earned,” Schutte wrote. “This man is NOT a patriot! He is a fake Republican and a fraud!”