Two men stare down as they prepare to brawl in a made-for-TV spectacle. The cameras spotlight their faceoff as the referee restrains them from coming to blows prematurely.

No, this wasn’t a promotional for the UFC heavyweight world championship live on HBO at the MGM Las Vegas. This was the GOP Ohio Senate Forum hosted by FreedomWorks.

The Buckeye State has produced some of America’s greatest statesmen. It’s given us eight presidents and giants of the Senate from Robert A. Taft to the retiring Rob Portman. Now it's given us a car full of clowns.

A few months...

Two men stare down as they prepare to brawl in a made-for-TV spectacle. The cameras spotlight their faceoff as the referee restrains them from coming to blows prematurely.

No, this wasn’t a promotional for the UFC heavyweight world championship live on HBO at the MGM Las Vegas. This was the GOP Ohio Senate Forum hosted by FreedomWorks.

The Buckeye State has produced some of America’s greatest statesmen. It’s given us eight presidents and giants of the Senate from Robert A. Taft to the retiring Rob Portman. Now it’s given us a car full of clowns.

A few months ago, I wrote about how the Republican primary contest for Ohio’s Senate seat was descending into madness. It’s now entered the realm of complete absurdity. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any dumber, a few days ago, at the FreedomWorks Forum, a belligerent Josh Mandel stood up to businessman Mike Gibbons and challenged him to fight on the debate stage over a supposed insult about his two tours in Iraq.

All Gibbons had said was that Mandel had no private-sector experience, which is true. Mandel is a career politician, which makes his performative shtick as a brass-knuckled firebrand outsider all the more bewildering. “You’re dealing with the wrong guy,” Mandel said to Gibbons before calling him a “pussy.” Fellow candidate J.D. Vance, meanwhile, attempting to contrast himself from the rest of the field, encouraged civility.

None of this is surprising coming from Mandel. At the outset, he established himself as the buffoon of this race, and he’s played the part very well ever since. Yet Mandel’s juvenile clownings notwithstanding, he is only the second-worst candidate in this race after Vance. Despite briefly coming off as the adult in the room, the author of the highly acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy has debased himself to a degree that even Mandel can’t match, engaging in the most vitriolic trolling and trafficking in pernicious ideas.

One of the original NeverTrumpers, Vance has transitioned from a supporter of genuine efforts to provide conservative solutions to the problems facing working people to embracing the most vile elements of our politics. He now supports Marxist wealth confiscation schemes, denies Ukraine’s right to self-determination, and has sought the endorsement of disgraced Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently spoke at the white supremacist AFPAC Conference.

If elected, Vance will advance the cause of “national conservatism,” an incoherent ideology that heralds “the nation” while dismissing American exceptionalism and deriding the country’s role in the world. The natcons seem to embrace libertarian talking points on foreign “adventurism” while simultaneously seeking to extinguish our nation’s dynamism through statism.

Using progressives means for conservative ends is unworkable. And these views don’t have any real constituency in the Republican Party outside the beltway. There’s a reason we’ve seen so many pundits who know their audience, including Tucker Carlson, run away from their previous anti-anti-Putin sentiments in light of Russian barbarism.

Right-wing populism now has a lack of real grassroots support, which speaks to its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. Yet it’s the grasstops that drive history. And while Twitter may not be a reality now, it could be someday.

This is why Vance’s candidacy poses such a danger. As a senator, his vitriol and conspiracy-mongering could infect other legacy institutions, which would feel the need to ape his maximalism. Young conservatives who come to DC for post-college employment could feel pressure to join the ranks of this new decadent class to survive professionally. If prominent political insiders have already sold out, why wouldn’t a young Hillsdale alumnus working as a staff assistant on the Hill?

This is why all the clowns are not created equal. Anyone who cares about GOP credibility and principles should understand that “anyone but Vance” is still the obvious choice this May, because while Mandel may be a fool, he’s not a menace in the same way Vance is. We may still be left wondering where Ohio went, but it has hope of finding its way back as long as it avoids J.D.