Trump’s Influence Was on Display in Ohio Primaries as JD Vance Cleaned Up

Tuesday’s primary elections in Ohio resulted in Trump-backed candidate J.D. Vance has won the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate seat that was left open by Sen. Rob Portman’s decision to retire.

Vance won the race in the last days, despite four candidates polling in double-digits and several minor candidates splitting the vote between them. At the end, he ended up with slightly over 340,000 votes, representing 32.2 percentThe total number of GOP primaries in the state.

Vance’s emergence as a Trump-world star was a long time coming. In 2016, Vance — the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a best-selling memoir about growing up poor in Kentucky that, among other motifs, trafficked in right-wing themes about “welfare queens” — was widely quoted as lambasting Donald Trump. That was the time. Vance called Trump “noxious” and “reprehensible,” and cast himself firmly as a “Never Trumper.”

Vance was transformed four years later in 2020. He now supported Trump’s reelection efforts, and in a series of groveling U-turns, averred that the MAGA leader was the best president in his lifetime.

By the time Vance got to running in the Republican primary to become the party’s nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio this year, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Trumpite — a believer in every wacky conspiracy theory that Trump pushed about stolen elections, “invasions” of the country by “illegal” immigrants, Chinese plots to take over the world, and so on.

Trump took note, and in a crowded primary field, he went out on a limb and endorsed Vance, his one-time antagonist — though at a rally shortly before primary day, he mangled Vance’s name, conflating it with that of his protégé’s leading rival. Vance, the former President, who spent 16 months cultivating a shadow-GOP organization out of his Mar-a-Lago refuge has deliberately snubbed candidates by throwing his political weight behind Vance. Josh Mandel, who were endorsed by eminently old-school Republican institutions such as the Club for Growth, and who, if their track record counted for anything, had at least as much right to expect Trump’s nod as did the political neophyte Vance.

Mandel, who lost three times in the Senate race, desperately wanted to be more in line with Trumpite values and hired Ted Cruz, a fervent conservative, to campaign alongside him. Yet it was Vance who received a modest bump in the polls in the days leading up to the election, as a result of receiving Trump’s blessing. In a crowded field that was crowded, that bump was enough to make the difference.

The differences between the GOP candidates has been a topic of much discussion over the past week. Are they isolationists? Or do they believe in international collaboration? Are they pro-big businesses or do they at least speak in a populist camp? Are they entirely anti-Chinese, or are they willing to consider engagement and dialogue with Xi’s China?

It’s true, there are some subtle differences. However, the similarities among most of the candidates for the primary are far more important than these differences. Primary elections have become a tribute to Trump’s personality cult. Mike Gibbons, who finished fourth in the Senate primary, spent $11 million of his own moneyIn a series TV commercials, Trump attempts to channel his inner Trump. Mandel, who finished second, went from being a moderate Ohio state treasurer to being ferociously hard-right and pro-Trump as he wooed his party’s base.

Candidates DoThey tend to do poorly when they distance themselves from Trump’s foul rhetoric. The Ohio State Senator came in third. Matt Dolan; as the one high-profile anti-Trumper in the Republican field, who has critiqued Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 insurrection, he managed to consolidate the more moderate GOP vote — and even saw a bump in his support after Trump endorsed Vance. He came in with just 25% of the votes cast, despite all that.

What is more interesting in Ohio is not the various shades of Trump that so many candidates now radiate, but the limits to Trump’s power as a maker-and-breaker of political fortunes. Trumpism may be a dominant creed in the Republican party. But Trump the individual may well be beyond his power to determine who the party nominates for its marquee political races.

Yes, J.D. Yes, J.D. And he did so with less than a third of the vote, meaning that most GOP primary voters weren’t swayed by Trump’s endorsement of Vance. Vance’s vote in Ohio was 340,000. This is just one-eighth of Trump’s 2020 voter base of 2.68 million. And, while it’s true that far fewer people vote in primaries than in general elections, Vance’s modest numbers are hardly indicative of an unstoppable tidal wave of support.

The more significant result, in the long run, from Tuesday’s Ohio primary may well be not the Senate race, but the primary for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Trump lost that race. Sitting Gov. Mike DeWine, who has consistently refused to go along with Trump’s argument that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from him, and who has, as a result, roused the twice-impeached former president’s ire, ran away with his primary. DeWine won by a whopping 19 percentOver a rival, who, although not explicitly endorsed Trump, made it clear on the campaign trail he marched in lockstep the MAGA movement.

Trump demanded that all candidates for primary races across the country, from local to state to federal races, kiss the ring. J.D. Vance’s case, that humiliating ritual paid off. With DeWine, however, Trump couldn’t find a candidate strong enough to take down the incumbent, and he was forced to sit on the sidelines while a political figure he loathes coasted to an easy victory. Over the coming weeks, there are a number of other high-profile races — not least in Georgia — in which Trump is seeking to use his personal endorsements to hand-pick a slew of political figures, from Senate candidates to governors of swing states. Georgia Gov. Brian KempTrump’s most feared opponent, David Perdue, is now far ahead of him. Trumpism as an ideology seems, at least in the short term, to be secure as the lode-star of the modern GOP; it’s far less clear, however, that as the primary season unfolds, Trump-the-individual is as dominant.