CLEVELAND – Ohio has a long history of success in the fields of iron and steel, less so in bytes and bits, and its history with cryptocurrencies is short and largely aspirational.
In 2018, Ohio became the first U.S. state to allow businesses to pay taxes in cryptocurrency. Less than a year later, that program ended when the Ohio Attorney General determined it to be illegal. Around the same time, Cleveland fostered hopes for renewed economic relevance by turning itself into a blockchain destination. Those dreams faded as cities like Miami took off.
So when Republican U.S. senator Rob Portman announced in early 2021 that he would retire, creating an open seat in 2022, it seemed an unlikely setting for a crypto-heavy election cycle.
While crypto policy is unlikely to affect the race’s outcome, the technology’s mindshare among the candidates augurs well for the industry’s clout in Washington.
The Republican field
After Ohio’s historically “purple” electorate swung all the way for Donald Trump in the last presidential election by eight points in 2020, whoever wins the Republican primary Tuesday is likely to take the open Senate seat.
Polling shows JD Vance and Josh Mandel atop a crowded field of candidates. Mandel is a familiar name to those who have followed Ohio politics or crypto. He served as a state representative and state treasurer (he implemented the program to pay taxes in crypto), then he secured a footnote in crypto-politics history with a single tweet proclaiming his vision for Ohio: “pro-God, pro-family, pro-bitcoin.” Naturally, supporters can donate to his campaign in crypto.
Vance, while less vocal in his support of crypto in his campaign, owns a sizable amount of BTC (Mandel didn’t report owning any crypto as of an August 2021 financial disclosure). Vance is also heavily backed by Peter Thiel, who recently stated his views on the moral imperative for bitcoin adoption, and shamed crypto-skeptical financial leaders.
Thiel donated $13.5 million to Vance’s super PAC, $10 million of which came before a recent endorsement by former President Trump. The venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder’s support likely kept Vance’s chances alive when his campaign was struggling.
As president, Trump famously called bitcoin a scam, but this didn’t stop Mandel or Vance (or Thiel) from being publicly pro-crypto, underscoring that crypto is still truly an ancillary issue.
For Vance and Mandel (and Thiel), their interest in crypto appears to be at least as much ideological as financial. It’s a weapon for repudiating a perceived ruling class. If current financial controls are rigged by a cabal of elites without allegiance to Ohioans, crypto offers an alternative.
“At the end of the day, the thing that I really do worry about is that we have an economy that is rigged by the government to favor special interests,” Vance told CoinDesk. “The cryptocurrency world is very new, but it could provide an avenue for creating prosperity that the special interests in Washington won’t control.”
The Democratic field
On the Democrat side, the presumptive winner of the primary is incumbent Rep. Tim Ryan. Ryan co-sponsored the Keep Innovation in America Act, a crypto-friendly bill designed to maintain reasonable tax reporting requirements. But he’s had much less visible involvement than his longshot challenger, Morgan Harper.
Harper has done a crypto AMA (ask me anything) session on Reddit, appeared on crypto podcasts, and written several Twitter threads detailing her interest in the space:
Harper’s line on crypto runs parallel to that of Vance or Mandel: We can use crypto to circumvent and obviate the elites who have swindled us. In a state where household incomes have been roughly stagnant in the 21st century, less conventional solutions might have broader appeal to scorned voters than in other, more optimistic areas of the country.
"If you distrust government, if you’re cynical about politicians, then you should be a strong proponent of bitcoin." Mandel told the Columbus Dispatch in February. "It’s one of the strongest antidotes we have to power-hungry governments and corrupt politicians."
Crypto’s political appeal
In an Ohio that feels left behind by the economy and those in power, candidates on both sides of the aisle invoke crypto as a potential palliative for a low-trust society.
This race already lost its most crypto-fluent candidate in February when car dealer turned crypto entrepreneur Bernie Moreno dropped out of the Republican primary. He was the leading figure behind Blockland, an initiative attempting to turn Cleveland into a crypto hub through conferences and a dedicated physical space downtown. It has run into the political roadblocks that Moreno called “the inertia that is northeast Ohio.” Though this inertia may have stopped Blockland, it may strengthen the case for crypto in the area in the same stroke.
After dropping out, Moreno endorsed Vance. He laments that some of the candidates in the field discuss crypto without having knowledge to back it up.
"You got people … that genuinely don't know anything about the technology. Like zero,” Moreno said. “It’d be like somebody who is saying 'hey we should be in the car business and cars are the greatest thing in the world' but they don't own a car, or someone who's giving reviews of great steak restaurants and they're vegan."
Vance echoed that sentiment, telling CoinDesk that he owns crypto, “unlike the other guy who talks about cryptocurrency all the time but doesn’t actually know what it is.”
Though crypto is receiving unexpected attention in this race, the rhetoric is largely facile – don’t go looking for insights on the blockchain trilemma, or thoughtful discussions of a central bank digital currency (CBDC) and stablecoin regulation. That’s to be expected: You can’t have higher expectations for politicians than you do for Crypto Twitter.
Going into Tuesday’s primary, it appears unlikely Harper will win, the Republican race is still up in the air and, as mentioned, crypto won’t make much (if any) of a difference in the final vote counts. But crypto’s sustained relevance here hints at its increasing political potential.
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