Bashing Republican Gov. Mike DeWine for his work to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 has become a litmus test for Republican Senate candidates in Ohio vying for Donald Trump's endorsement.
Why it matters: The intra-party attacks underscore how opposition to masking and COVID mandates has snowballed into a powerful political force, not just at the federal level but also in state races.
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What we're watching: Former Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel - the early front-runner in the crowded and expensive GOP Senate primary - was the first to make attacking DeWine a regular part of his stump speech.
"Unfortunately, Republican governor, 'RINO' Gov. DeWine, decided he was going to lead the charge in shutting down Ohio before any state in the nation," Mandel said last March, using the acronym for "Republican in Name Only."
DeWine, who took early actions to lock down his state, was among a small group of Republican officials who didn't fall into lockstep with former President Trump when it came to the pandemic response.
DeWine is up for re-election this year. Trump has yet to endorse in the Senate race, but its candidates are auditioning, in part, at the governor's expense.
Other Republican Senate candidates - who've all supported DeWine in the past - have since changed their positions to compete with Mandel.
They're all vying for the seat of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who's retiring.
Former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken and tech company executive Bernie Moreno both moved from praising DeWine at the start of the lockdown to taking markedly less-supportive stances.
As Moreno stated during one of several Republican forums where DeWine's name repeatedly came up, "It's one of the most popular things to do on this circuit, to say nasty things about DeWine."
Author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance endorsed DeWine for governor in 2018 but said after he entered the Senate race that DeWine "has not done enough to really protect the interests of children throughout the pandemic."
Even DeWine's gubernatorial opponent, former Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), said in a statement, "If Mike DeWine won't support families and keep these schools open, then he should step aside and let someone who actually cares take the lead."
Between the lines: Opposing DeWine could be another way for the candidates jockeying for Trump's endorsement to signal their loyalty.
Last year, the former president hosted a "Hunger Games"-style dinner where he was fixated on the Republican Senate candidates' opinion of DeWine.
Politico reported Mandel "said the governor was politically vulnerable" but Timken argued "he'd be hard to beat."
What they're saying: Asked about the attacks, DeWine told local Fox affiliate WJW, "Yeah, well, none of them are running for governor - first of all. They're running for Senate, and we'll see who emerges from that."
The Ohio Democratic Party jumped on the feuding.
"In order to chase Trump's endorsement, all of the leading GOP Senate candidates are willing to escalate Trump's petty feud with Mike DeWine that will only deepen the divisions within the Republican Party heading into 2022," party spokesperson Michael Beyer told Axios.
What's next: Axios Columbus reporter Tyler Buchanan said pro-DeWine ads are starting to run on the airwaves.
That's a noteworthy effort to promote the governor after the public beatings he's taken from Republican lawmakers, candidates and voters during the past two years.
Meanwhile, Mandel will be appearing at a state GOP event this Friday alongside Renacci.