May 6—Former President Donald Trump’s influence was clear in Tuesday’s election when Republican J.D. Vance won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in Ohio after trailing in third or fourth place until Trump endorsed him on April 15, according to local political experts.
“For Republicans, President Trump, or maybe ‘Trumpism,’ is alive and well in Ohio,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Cedarville University Center for Political Studies. “Not only did J.D. Vance go from relative mediocrity to winning the nomination based on Trump’s endorsement, and a pile of outside cash, but three of the top four candidates embraced Trump’s issues, rhetoric and style. Combined, Vance, Mandel and Gibbons garnered about two-thirds of the total vote.”
Seven Republicans and three Democrats were on the primary ballot, vying to replace U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is retiring.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland Twp. in Trumbull County, won the Democratic primary with nearly 70% of the vote, according to final, unofficial results reported by the Ohio Secretary of State. Morgan Harper of Columbus came in second and businesswoman Traci “TJ” Johnson of Hilliard, third.
Vance, an author and businessman who is a native of Middletown now living in Cincinnati, won the GOP primary with just over 32% of the vote.
Nearly tying for second were former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel of Beachwood, with 23.89%, and state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, with 23.33%. Results will not be finalized until late-arriving absentee and provisional ballots are counted.
Businessman Mike Gibbons of Fairview Park came in fourth, followed by former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken of Canton, businessman Mark Pukita of Dublin and businessman Neil Patel of Westerville.
All seven candidates had similar conservative platforms and talked about how supportive they were of Trump’s ideas. Dolan was the only Republican candidate who rejected Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, leading Trump to call Dolan unfit for the senate.
“It’s something of a litmus test for Trump’s support. If you deny that the election was stolen, at least if you explicitly deny it the way that Dolan did, there’s no way that he will support you,” said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
Dolan said Joe Biden was the legitimate winner in 2020, a view supported by multiple investigations, audits, court rulings and Trump’s own justice department that found no evidence of widespread fraud or election irregularities that would have negated Biden’s win of both the popular and Electoral College votes.
“If you look at the broadly Trumpian candidates, they got (about) 75% of the vote from the Republican base,” said Lee Hannah, associate professor of political science at Wright State University. “In that way, again, it shows Trump’s influence on the party. And it shows that those types of talking points — kind of the economic populism, nationalistic rhetoric — that that is at least what is winning primaries in Ohio.”
Indiana’s primary was the same day as Ohio, and and in the two states all 22 Trump-endorsed Republican candidates, many incumbents or running unopposed, won their races.
“A lot of the people he endorsed, when you total up the numbers it sounds impressive. But most of those people were going to win anyway.” Devine said.
In some key races, Trump did not make endorsements, including the GOP primary for Ohio governor, where three candidates challenged Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“It’s not because (Trump) didn’t have a preference. He endorsed Jim Renacci in the 2018 senate race. He’s been critical of Mike DeWine,” Devine said. “We know who he wanted to win, but I think he feared that person couldn’t win.”
Renacci came in second in the governor’s race primary with 28% of the vote to DeWine’s 48%.
Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley won the Democratic nomination.
With a long string of primary elections still ahead, Hannah said Trump is clearly “kingmaker of the party.”
“But at the same time there are still some candidates that are not going to (win). He’s going to lose some of these races,” Hannah said.
Ryan may follow Sherrod Brown playbook
Ohio was once known as a “swing state” where Republicans and Democrats had similar levels of support, but it shifted more toward the GOP since Trump won the presidency in 2016.
“We will see if Tim Ryan can make the general election competitive in a state that has tilted from bellwether to solidly Republican,” Smith said. “Ryan will offer his own form of populism, while trying to shed the perceived extremes of the national Democratic party. He will talk about more police, not defunding them. He will focus on manufacturing and China. Interestingly, Ryan and Vance will probably sound very similar themes from now until November.”
Ryan has represented his largely blue collar Youngstown-area district in Congress since 2003 and centers his campaign around pro-worker themes, jobs and the economy, boosting manufacturing, and opposition to previous trade deals and China’s policies that he says sent American jobs overseas.
“If Democrats have a chance to win in a senate seat the state of Ohio, Tim Ryan is that type of guy,” Devine said. “I’m not sure how well that can be done. But we have the model of (Democratic U.S. Sen.) Sherrod Brown in Ohio, who won by 6.8 points in 2018.”
Ryan is “not focusing on hot button social issues or foreign policy. He’s using a populist economic message like the one that worked for Sherrod Brown,” Devine said.
Aside from the state’s Republican leanings, Ryan faces political headwinds. Among them: the historical pattern of a president’s party losing seats in midterm elections, Biden’s poor approval rating and high inflation souring public opinion of an otherwise robust economic recovery.
One warning sign for Democrats is how few of them turned out to vote Tuesday compared to Republicans, who cast nearly 1.1 million ballots in Ohio to the Democrats 510,362 in the senate race, according to the secretary of state report.
Ryan will need Democrats to be energized to vote, and must attract independents and peel off Republican voters who can’t abide Trump or candidates like Vance who claim the election was stolen from Trump, Devine said.
“I’ll be curious to see how much Ryan wants to take on Trump through Vance,” Hannah said. “He’s certainly not going to ascribe to the ‘big lie.'”
Multiple polls show that while about two-thirds of Americans believe Biden was legitimately elected president, a majority of Republicans believe the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen.
“On the one hand, it is a galvanizing tool for Republicans,” said Hannah. “The premise is dishonest. I think it works. It gets people angry. It gets people out to vote.”
Neither Devine nor Hannah think Vance will pivot to try to attract more moderate voters, something that in the past was a common tactic for candidates needing to energize the base for primaries but get wider support in the General Election.
“He clearly pivoted very hard into the right, and it paid off with that Trump endorsement,” Hannah said. “He may look at the national winds, which favor Republicans, trends in Ohio, which favor Republicans, and he may just estimate that if he just turns out the base he’s in.”
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