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Former president Donald Trump’s sway over Republicans in this year’s midterms was tested on Tuesday in a crowded primary for the US Senate in Ohio — one of two states where voters headed to the polls.
Republican primary voters were selecting their nominee to fill an open Senate seat from a group that included a candidate backed by Trump, three others who touted ties to him and one who rejected the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
In once mainstream Ohio, moderates struggle against pro-Trump rivals
The winner will advance to the general election for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, which GOP leaders are hoping to hold as they seek to win back the Senate in November. Rep. Tim Ryan was projected to win the Democratic primary, according to the Associated Press, easily defeating Morgan Harper, a former attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who ran to his left.
Other primaries for governor and the US House were expected to send early signals about the direction each party is headed leading up to the November election. Voters in Indiana also went to the polls Tuesday. Polls closed Tuesday evening in both states, as strategists in both parties awaited the results.
But the Republican Senate primary in Ohio was the marquee competition. In mid-April, Trump endorsed venture capitalist and author JD 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. Many Republican strategists regarded Vance as the candidate with the inside track headed into Tuesday’s vote.
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 “JD Mandel.” The verbal miscue combined Vance’s first name with the last name of former state treasurer Josh Mandel, one of his chief rivals in the race.
Others pounced on the error, with the campaign of Ohio business executive Mike Gibbons, who stalled in recent polls, 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 have deep ties to Trump’s orbit and have campaigned as Trump allies. Victories by any of them would show that Trumpism remains potent even if the president’s handpicked candidate does not win.
The outlier is state Sen. Matt 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 a path to victory in the crowded race if more-traditional Republicans rallied around his candidacy.
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.
In a statement, Trump said the decision to change the name rendered Dolan “not fit to serve in the United States Senate.” Vance used a similar attack, accusing Dolan of caving to liberal pressure to change the name of the team.
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.
In the race for governor, Democrats were picking between two former Ohio mayors — Nan Whaley of Dayton and John Cranley of Cincinnati. On the Republican side, Gov. Mike DeWine, who surged in popularity at the start of the pandemic, was facing a challenge from former congressman James B. Renacci. 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. The divided field might help DeWine, who declined to debate either opponent.
Down the nerd, 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 (DN.Y.).
While Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez support 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 it 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 tended 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 JR 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.