Asked for comment via email on this story, J.R. Majewski posted a response on X that calls himself a “supporter of Donald Trump who’s never strayed.” | Tom E. Puskar/AP

House Republicans are scrambling to fix a potential nightmare that’s unfolding in a must-win race in northwestern Ohio.

The GOP is eager to block J.R. Majewski from winning its nomination to challenge veteran Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Majewski lost his previous bid for Congress last year, after a news report on his military records indicated he lied about combat duty in Afghanistan.

Republicans turned to former state legislator Craig Riedel to beat Majewski in this cycle’s primary. But last week, an audio tape surfaced of Riedel calling Donald Trump “arrogant” and vowing not to endorse the former president. Now the primary looks poised to become a referendum on which is worse in today’s GOP: criticizing Trump or allegedly lying about one’s military valor.

Republican strategists don’t believe Majewski can win a general election against Kaptur, given his record and how purple the district is. Yet the audio of Riedel may have tanked his chances of defeating Majewski.

So Republicans in Ohio and Washington are in damage control mode, holding high-level discussions about trying to find a new candidate before the state’s Dec. 20 filing deadline, according to three people familiar with the effort who were granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“Unless he’s found somebody that knows he was in Afghanistan, and he can have some proof that he was in Afghanistan, I don’t know how he overcomes that issue,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said of Majewski. “It’s a disqualifier for anybody that does it. I’m not saying he did. But so far, last I heard, he didn’t have a good answer.”

Top party strategists are urging Trump’s team and allies not to rush to endorse Majewski, citing his liabilities. Republican campaign officials are also deploying screenshots of a nearly two-year-old private message that appears to show Majewski calling Trump “an idiot.” Those pictures of the alleged Majewski message were shown to the former president, according to a fourth person familiar with the interaction.

“You could take a self-funder with over half a million dollars to put in that race and win the primary and have a better shot at beating Marcy Kaptur than J.R. Majewski … who will lose by 20 points,” this Republican said.

House Republicans from Ohio met Thursday afternoon with the topic of a possible new candidate on the agenda, according to a fifth person familiar with the meeting, who was granted anonymity to address it candidly.

Recent redistricting turned Kaptur’s Toledo-based district into one of the nation’s most competitive; she is one of just five Democrats who represents a district that Trump carried in 2020. But Majewski’s reported misrepresentation of his service record sank his last bid, and he lost by 13 points.

With a minuscule House majority to protect, the GOP can’t afford to whiff in the race again.

Majewski’s attempted comeback bid didn’t initially worry national Republicans, in part because Riedel is the only well-funded contender in the primary, with over $500,000 banked by the end of September. Until last week, when Charlie Kirk — leader of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA — leaked audio of Riedel telling a potential donor that he isn’t seeking Trump’s endorsement and won’t support the former president in 2024.

“I think he is arrogant. I don’t like the way he calls people names. I just don’t think that’s very becoming of a president,” Riedel said of Trump in the recording, the date of which is unclear.

In an effort to repair his prospects in the primary, Riedel quickly endorsed Trump after the audio leaked. Riedel also released a cable ad Friday highlighting Majewski’s alleged criticism of Trump that will air in a Florida media market more than 1,000 miles away: the former president’s home base of West Palm Beach.

“Craig is a great candidate. He has done all the things he needs to win this race. He has tremendous support in the district — all up and down the district. And so if people are serious about flipping the seat, we welcome their support to do just that,” said Riedel spokesperson Mark Harris.

Asked for comment via email on this story, Majewski posted a response on X that calls himself a “supporter of Donald Trump who’s never strayed.” He accused the GOP of “pandering fake news in their partisan attempt to muddy my primary.”

“I don’t have to run ads 1000 miles away from my district in Palm Beach to prove that I am a Trump guy,” he wrote, adding a middle finger emoji. His campaign later sent a similar statement.

Riedel’s Trump endorsement may have been too late to stop Majewski from gaining momentum.

Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a former Trump aide, withdrew his endorsement from Riedel after the leak, though he isn’t backing Majewski. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) threw his support behind Majewski, along with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is running in the GOP primary to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“People say that J.R. was a bad candidate,” Vance said in a brief interview. “I think he had a very dishonest smear come out against him, and he had national Republicans abandon him. That’s not his fault.”

Conservative favorite Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), asked if he planned to withdraw his endorsement of Riedel, said that “I’m talking with our political guys. I haven’t spoken with Craig.” Asked if Riedel had made a big mistake, Jordan replied: “We told him to endorse President Trump months ago.”

Before the gaffe, Speaker Mike Johnson and his team had touted Riedel in recent meetings in an effort to drum up financial support.

“He made a mistake,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said of Riedel. “We’re obviously having conversations with people on the ground. I don’t know what the next steps are.”

But both candidates are facing allegations of Trump disloyalty.

In a Jan. 31, 2022 direct message on X, Majewski’s campaign account called Trump “an idiot,” according to screenshots of the exchange provided by Sam Melendez, a Democratic operative in northwest Ohio. Melendez showed POLITICO his exchange on X with Majewski in a video call to demonstrate the images he provided were not doctored.

He posted those screenshots to X on April 23, 2022 — the same day Trump was holding a rally in the state.

In an RV parked at the event, Majewski panicked and ordered his aides to help him figure out how to explain the messages to Trump’s team, according to multiple people close to the Majewski campaign with direct knowledge of the incident. Among the possible options: he could say the screenshot was photoshopped, or that his X account was hacked. Majewski later posted that the screenshot Melendez circulated was “100% fake and photoshopped.”

“Mr. Majewski has never sent a single message that disparages President Trump and amplifying these lies is intentionally misleading voters,” his campaign said in a statement.

During Majewski’s 2022 campaign, he cast himself as an Air Force combat veteran who deployed to Afghanistan. But records published by The Associated Press showed he was stationed in Qatar for six months in the early 2000s, loading cargo planes far away from the fighting.

Publicly, Majewski has vigorously denied the AP’s reporting. But he has offered a variety of explanations for his conflicting version of events, including that records of his time in Afghanistan were classified and that he flew in and out of the country to load and unload cargo planes.

He successfully petitioned the Air Force this year to add the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal to his record. That medal is offered to service members who deployed abroad after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He has pointed toward that as proof that he served in Afghanistan, but it is also awarded to those who served in other countries, including Qatar.

Republicans continue to urge Majewski to furnish proof to rebut the Democratic attacks.

“I personally like the man,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general. “He’s got to be able to show that he was in Afghanistan. Otherwise, the Democrats will use that as a weapon.”

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