“It’s food on the table, gas in your car, retirement. How are you going to deal with all these things when you don’t get any additional income?” said Roland Winburn, a 75-year-old former Democratic state lawmaker.

Montgomery County, the home of Dayton, in recent elections has served as a gauge of the nation’s shifting political tides. It’s the only county in Ohio to vote for the winner of the last four presidential elections — one of just 25 counties in the United States to vote for former President Barack Obama twice, pivot to former President Donald Trump in 2016 and boomerang to President Joe Biden in 2020. The concerns of voters here could offer an early window into what will drive this year’s midterm elections.

Peter Slavey, 26, a machinist in Dayton who said he had voted for J.D. Vance in the Republican Senate primary, said he is worried about “the economics of everything.”
He said Biden bears some responsibility for high gasoline prices, pointing to the President’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline developer’s permit to cross into the United States.

“People say the President doesn’t control gas prices with a magic lever, but you can trace back to the executive order to shut down that pipeline,” Slavey said. “It does have an effect, and I think it’s more of just a shutdown for image rather than looking at the actual effects of things.”

Slavey said that with his future in manufacturing in mind, he backed Vance largely because of what he said was the candidate’s aggressive stance toward China’s “economic warfare.” He said he appreciates that the likely Democratic Senate nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, has also taken a hard line on China but that “generally Republicans are more hardline on that particular issue.”

Janet White, a 66-year-old loan officer in Dayton who said she is a Democrat, also pointed to inflation, as well as the possibility of Russia’s war in Ukraine expanding into a global conflict, as her top concerns.

She said Democrats deserve more credit for the party’s economic moves during a once-a-century pandemic, but she faulted the party for failing to offer voters a compelling message heading into this year’s midterm elections.

“Democrats don’t get out there and tout the things that are positive that they have done. Republicans do a really good job of being the opposition,” White said.

‘I don’t understand where the party is at now’

Ohio was once the ultimate presidential bellwether. But the state has become increasingly red in recent years — with Republicans dominating the state government and only Sen. Sherrod Brown winning nonjudicial statewide office as a Democrat over the last decade.

The state’s primary Tuesday is in the spotlight largely because the wide-open GOP contest to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman will offer a window into the direction of the party and the lasting influence of Trump, who endorsed Vance despite the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author’s past criticism of him.

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Trump’s endorsement of Vance was a huge blow to former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, businessman Mike Gibbons and former state GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken, who had all built their campaigns on messages of loyalty to Trump.

At rallies across the state in the race’s closing days, Republican attendees were quick to identify inflation as the most important issue facing the nation.

“Why, when Biden got in, was the first thing to get rid of the pipeline? I mean, it’s crazy,” Bob Eggers, 65, a commercial buyer from Columbus, said after a Mandel rally.

Eggers said he had voted for Democrats in the past, including former President Bill Clinton. But, he said, “I don’t understand where the party is at now. I mean, the party has moved too far.”

Voters cast their ballots early at the Franklin County Board of Elections polling location on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.

But in interviews, many also pointed to US-Mexico border security, concern about a lack of parental involvement in schools’ curriculums and a sense that the Democratic Party had moved left culturally.

Sharon Goldston, a 70-year-old retiree from Hamilton, said border security was a top concern.

“It affects everyone, no matter what state you’re in at this point,” she said. “I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m anti-illegal immigrant.”

She also said she is concerned about the way she believes parents are being treated by school boards and wants to make sure Ohio’s curriculum “doesn’t become as extreme as other parts of the country.”

Carolyn Terrill, 66, a retiree from Xenia who attended a recent Mandel event, said Trump’s endorsement of Vance “really threw me a curve” and that she was leaning toward voting for Mandel despite Trump’s endorsement. She pointed to Vance saying in 2016 that he might vote for Hillary Clinton.

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“But the last straw was (Vance) saying that I, as a person that voted for Trump, that I was racist, and I am not. I am not a racist person,” Terrill said, raising a Vance comment that has been featured in television ads aired by the conservative Club for Growth Action, which is backing Mandel. “Then President Trump comes around and endorses him. So that’s a real head scratcher to me.”

Her impression that progressives are less tolerant of the free speech rights of those who disagree with them on cultural issues leaves her feeling that the Democratic Party has moved leftward “terribly too far.”

“And so much to the point that it just, it doesn’t even feel like America anymore. It’s very scary to me,” Terrill said.

She pointed to Biden’s commitment, first made during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, to select a Black woman for the Supreme Court. The President fulfilled that promise by nominating Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson this year.

“Why does that have to be the criteria? Couldn’t it just be the most qualified person, whatever race they are, whatever gender they are?” Terrill said.

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