In once mainstream Ohio, moderates struggle against pro-Trump rivals
In November’s general election, Vance will face Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who easily won his party’s nomination over Morgan Harper, a former attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who ran to his left. They’ll vie for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Rob Portman, a moderate Republican. GOP leaders have voiced confidence about holding the seat as they seek to win back control the Senate.
Vance’s primary win caps an extraordinary political transformation from staunch Trump critic to one of the former president’s most vocal champions. His victory came in Tuesday’s marquee contest, as voters went to the polls in Ohio and Indiana to select nominees for the fall elections.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who surged in popularity at the start of the pandemic, defeated former Republican congressman James B. Renacci, the AP projected. Renacci posed a serious enough challenge that the Republican Governors Association spent more than $1 million to boost DeWine over him and farmer Joe Blystone. Former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley won the Democratic nomination, the AP projected, defeating former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.
The result of the Ohio Senate primary represents a political victory for Trump in his first big midterm test. The former president took a risk by backing Vance and his support made a clear difference in the final stage of the race. Trump has waded into a number of high-stakes primaries leading up to November’s midterms, at times selecting underdog candidates or ones who are in tight races.
Trump called Vance to congratulate him, according to an aide familiar with the call who was granted anonymity to disclose a private conversation.
In mid-April, Trump endorsed Vance, a Republican who once styled himself as a Never Trumper and discussed the possibility of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The late endorsement scrambled the packed primary in the final weeks, giving Vance an edge in a state Trump won twice.
Trump muddied the waters over the weekend when he momentarily flubbed Vance’s name at a rally in Nebraska, referring to his chosen candidate as “J.D. Mandel.” The verbal miscue combined Vance’s first name with the last name of one of his chief rivals in the race.
Others pounced on the error with the campaign of Ohio business executive Mike Gibbons, who finished well behind Vance on Tuesday, distributing a clip of Trump’s mistake with a statement saying, “Even after his endorsement, JD Vance is clearly irrelevant to President Trump.”
Trump has involved himself in contested GOP primaries all across the country and has continued to promote false claims that the 2020 election was stolen as he campaigns for his preferred candidates. May will offer early glimpses of the value of his endorsement in races from Georgia to Nebraska to Pennsylvania.
May: The month that will decide Trump’s kingmaker status
Several candidates in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary field had deep ties to Trump’s orbit and have campaigned as Trump allies.
The outlier was Dolan, who, while supportive of many Trump policy positions, distinguished himself from the other top contenders by saying repeatedly that Trump should “move on” from the 2020 election. All of the other major candidates raised doubts about whether President Biden fairly won the White House.
Dolan trailed in pre-primary public polls but was believed by some to have had a path to victory heading into Tuesday.
In the final stage of the contest, there were indicators that Dolan gained some steam: Both Trump and Vance trained their attacks on him in recent days, zeroing in on his family’s ownership of the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, which was recently renamed from the “Indians.” Some conservatives have criticized the nickname change, casting it as a bow to political correctness.
Dolan also went on the offensive, taking aim at Vance for defending Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) as they campaigned side-by-side in Ohio in recent days. Gaetz faces an investigation over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and violated sex trafficking laws. He has denied those allegations.
Vance played down the accusations, according to the Columbus Dispatch, saying: “Being accused of a crime, as we’ve learned in the past four years in this country, is very often more about corrupt law enforcement than it is about anything anybody’s actually done.”
Mandel, in his third attempt to join the Senate, campaigned as a populist culture warrior. He railed against critical race theory — the intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — the Hollywood elite and what he says he views as overly liberal corporate culture. “Let’s celebrate Earth Day by building more pipelines,” he wrote on social media on April 22.
Also in the mix was former state Republican Party chair Jane Timken, who took on that job with Trump’s blessing and is well behind the leaders in polls. She ran with the endorsement of Portman but was running a in distant fifth-place late Tuesday.
Down the ballot, Rep. Shontel M. Brown (D-Ohio) was squaring off against former state senator Nina Turner, a liberal candidate who lost to Brown in an August 2021 special election for the Cleveland-based 11th District. Biden has endorsed Brown.
Turner, who was criticized for blowing through her cash lead last year, raised less for the rematch and said in an interview that she focused on field organizing over ad buys. Last year’s race featured splashy visits for Turner from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose 2020 presidential campaign she co-chaired, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
While Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez supported Turner — the latter made a last-minute endorsement on Monday — they stayed away from the campaign trail in Ohio. But groups such the Democratic Majority for Israel spent big to help Brown — a sign, said Turner, that the party establishment knew she might win.
“I think people are more open to discussing how much they’re suffering, compared to last year,” Turner said. “We hear it at the doors. There was a lot of optimism, coming off four years of Trump. But I think some reality hit people.”
Republicans dodged an internal primary battle when two members of Congress in northeast Ohio opted to retire, rather than face Trump-endorsed challenger Max Miller in the newly drawn 7th District. He’s favored in the five-way race for what’s now a reliably Republican seat.
In the newly drawn, neighboring 13th District, Trump endorsed Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a Miss Ohio winner, over six rivals, and state Rep. Emilia Sykes, the former Democratic leader in the state House, has no competition.
In both Ohio and Indiana, Republicans were also picking nominees in new districts that have trended their way and that new maps made less friendly to Democrats.
Several Ohio Republicans were vying to challenge Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the Toledo-based 9th District. State Sen. Theresa Gavarone came under scrutiny for criticizing Trump after the release in 2016 of the “Access Hollywood” tape on which he was recorded having a lewd conversation about women, and state Rep. Craig S. Riedel and Afghanistan war veteran J.R. Majewski ran as staunchly pro-Trump conservatives.
Republicans have rarely contested the traditionally Democratic 1st Congressional District in northwest Indiana, which went for Biden by nine points in 2020. But party operatives were bullish on their chances there this year and were watching to see if one of the race’s female veterans wins the primary — Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Jennifer-Ruth Green or Navy veteran Blair Milo, the former mayor of LaPorte.