A Republican Senate candidate in Ohio is doubling down on a controversial campaign ad, insisting voters need to be aware of an important fact: that the frontrunner in the primary is Jewish.
Mark Pukita, an IT entrepreneur in the crowded GOP race, during a Thursday night candidate forum defended a campaign ad that questioned the faith of opponent Josh Mandel.
A moderator at the debate, held by the Ohio Press Network at North Columbus Baptist Church, asked for Pukita to respond to claims that he is “antisemitic and intentionally divisive and inflammatory.”
“In terms of antisemitism, all I did in an ad was pointed out that Josh is going around saying he’s got the Bible in one hand and the constitution in the other. But he’s Jewish,” Pukita said. “Everybody should know that though, right?”
Pukita was referring to a radio ad created by his campaign that criticized Mandel for courting evangelical Christians and frequently visiting churches on the campaign trail.
“Are we seriously supposed to believe the most Christian-values Senate candidate is Jewish?” a voice actor asks in Pukita’s radio ad. “I am so sick of these phony caricatures.”
“I agree,” a woman replies in the ad. “We keep electing people like this, we’ll just keep getting the same terrible results.”
Pukita’s response was quickly condemned by Bernie Moreno, another Republican in the race who had the next turn to speak.
“Josh, nobody should question your faith. That’s not right,” Moreno said. “The Jewish religion, the Bible is the Bible. That was hard to hear. I’m sorry about that. That’s not right. We’re better than that, guys.”
Pukita last month was cut out of a forum hosted by the Center for Christian Virtue after the organization deemed his radio ad to be antisemitic. In a statement at the time, Pukita’s campaign called the claim “ridiculous and defamatory.”
“Mark Pukita is absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably a complete supporter of religious tolerance and of Israel,” Robert Gray, a campaign spokesperson, wrote in a statement. “He is not a supporter of phonies and panderers.”
Mandel, a former state treasurer, member of the Ohio state House and 2012 Republican nominee against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, is leading the seven-way primary. Pukita, who does not appear to have strong support in the race, has not been included in recent public polling on the Ohio Republican Senate primary.
Former President Donald Trump has yet to issue an endorsement in the race, which has featured messy attacks and high-dollar outside super PAC spending.
“Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, currently second in the race, did not attend the forum. Jane Timken, former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, also skipped the event.