Ohio’s Republican Senate primary was the first major midterm test of former President Donald Trump’s enduring influence over the Republican Party – and Trump’s candidate won.
J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author, emerged from a well-funded field of Republicans vying to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman.
It was the marquee contest of primaries in Ohio and Indiana on Tuesday in which incumbents and establishment-backed figures otherwise largely prevailed. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine easily bested Republicans who had criticized his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown cruised to victory in her Cleveland-area congressional district in a rematch against progressive Nina Turner.
Here are six takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries:
Vance was languishing in the polls and written off by several of his rivals – until Trump stepped into the race. With his mid-April endorsement, the former President delivered Vance what nearly everyone else in the race had coveted and built their campaign around trying to secure.
The shift was immediate. At Vance’s campaign stops, some attendees said they were persuaded by Trump. At his rivals’ events, voters said they had planned to vote for someone else – but Trump’s endorsement had given them pause.
Vance’s victory underscored the former President’s role as the kingmaker in the Republican Party. Though it’s not clear whether Trump will succeed in his effort to oust incumbent Republicans he believes have wronged him, Ohio’s results demonstrated that in open-seat races, his endorsement might be the most important factor.
The political press, Vance said at his victory party Tuesday night, “wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. Ladies and gentlemen, it ain’t the death of the ‘America First’ agenda.”
Vance tapped into an anti-establishment message, taking constant aim at China and slamming Democrats over border security problems that he blamed for Ohio’s opioid crisis. He also copped to his biggest liability in the primary, telling Republican crowds bluntly that his past criticism of Trump had been wrong.
It didn’t hurt that the Republican primary was a months-long demolition derby. At an early debate, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons – who at the time were jockeying for first place in the polls – nearly fist-fought. No one consistently topped 30% in the polls, and a huge portion of the primary electorate was undecided.
Vance’s ready-for-television personality and ease at the microphone were obvious. He had the backing of billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel, who pumped millions of dollars into a television advertising campaign to boost Vance. And he had already won over Trump’s GOP acolytes – he campaigned with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump Jr.
But all of that wasn’t enough to overcome his previous critiques of the former President – until Trump himself endorsed Vance and said at a rally in Delaware County last month that he didn’t mind that Vance had once “said some bad sh*t about me.”
“I want to pick somebody that’s going to win, and this man is going to win,” Trump said at the rally.
Rep. Tim Ryan did what was expected on Tuesday – he won the state’s Democratic Senate primary. Now comes the hard part.
The longtime congressman from Youngstown is the Democratic Party’s last and best hope in Ohio, but his odds of winning in November are long. The state that has shifted away from the party over the last dozen years: Other than Sen. Sherrod Brown, no Democrat has won a nonjudicial statewide office in the Buckeye State since 2008, and former President Donald Trump carried the state twice. And this midterm year, Democrats face both historical and economic headwinds.
Ryan looked to address these odds on Tuesday, urging his supporters to stop “looking at each other and seeing a Democrat or seeing a Republican” and to be open to “heal,” to “come together” and to “forgive each other” for decisions that others may have made. It’s a message aimed squarely at winning back voters who may have left the Democratic Party and voted for Trump.
Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton who won the Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday, did the same in her victory speech, specifically reaching out to voters who backed Republicans in the past.
“Ohio isn’t a red state or blue state,” Whaley said. “It’s a frustrated state that has been ignored by politicians from both parties for too long.”
The Republican establishment did flex its muscles in several key races Tuesday.
Gov. Mike DeWine, a fixture of Ohio politics for four decades, easily fended off right-wing challengers, including former Rep. Jim Renacci, who were critical of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the Senate primary, Dolan, the state senator whose family owns Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians, was the only candidate who rejected Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud. He was battling for second place, a much stronger than expected showing for a candidate who spent much of the campaign polling in the single digits. And he won two urban population centers, Franklin County, the home of Columbus, and Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland.
In neighboring Indiana, the other state that held its primary Tuesday, former state Sen. Erin Houchin – who was a regional GOP chairwoman and an aide to former Sen. Dan Coats – won a nine-way primary in the 9th congressional district. She stymied the comeback hopes of former US Rep. Mike Sodrel, who was backed by the House Freedom Caucus.
In a rematch of their 2021 special election clash, Rep. Shontel Brown again defeated progressive favorite Nina Turner, a former state senator who rose to national prominence as a top aide and surrogate to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his two presidential campaigns.
Brown, who was endorsed by President Joe Biden and backed by big spending outside groups like the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, still faced what many believed would be a slightly more difficult road this time around, with more of Cleveland, where Turner performed well last summer, drawn into the new 11th district.
But even with what appeared to be a more welcoming map and another endorsement from The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Turner again fell short – and progressives, who are hoping to boost their numbers even within what’s expected to be a diminished House Democratic conference next year, missed out on a chance to grab hold of the state’s most reliably blue seat.
The 2022 primary calendar is set to accelerate, with contests in Nebraska and West Virginia next week. And in both states, Trump is playing a prominent role in marquee races.
In Nebraska’s race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, Trump has endorsed Charles Herbster, a candidate who has faced more than a dozen sexual misconduct allegations and denied them.
Trump defended Herbster at a rally on Sunday. “He’s been badly maligned and it’s a shame. That’s why I came out here,” Trump said. “It would have been easy for me to say, ‘I’m not gonna come.’ I defend my people when I know they’re good.”
The full-throated defense came just days after the Nebraska Examiner reported that seven women, including Republican state Sen. Julie Slama, had accused Herbster of groping them at political events or beauty pageants, with an additional woman accusing him of kissing her forcibly. In six cases, at least one eyewitness corroborated the women’s allegations, the publication reported. Herbster has denied the allegations, calling them “100% false.” He filed a lawsuit Friday against Slama – who says that Herbster reached up her skirt during a Republican fundraising dinner in 2019 – and claimed to have suffered “grievous harm to his reputation” from her accusation.
West Virginia, meanwhile, lost a seat in the House after the 2020 census, leading to two congressmen, Reps. Alex Mooney and David McKinley, squaring off for a single seat.
Trump endorsed Mooney, and conservative groups have lined up behind his campaign. McKinley, meanwhile, has establishment support – including from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who appeared in a television ad on McKinley’s behalf.