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

While Vance’s ring kissing paid off, his modest numbers are hardly indicative of an unstoppable tidal wave of support.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks to supporters after winning the primary, at an election night event at Duke Energy Convention Center on May 3, 2022, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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

In a race with four candidates polling in double digits and several minor candidates between them splitting the remaining vote, Vance pulled ahead in the final days. At the end of the day, he ended up with slightly over 340,000 votes, representing 32.2 percent of the total number of GOP primary votes 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. At that time Vance called Trump “noxious” and “reprehensible,” and cast himself firmly as a “Never Trumper.”

Four years later, in 2020, Vance had undergone a metamorphosis. 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. In throwing his considerable political weight behind Vance, the former president, who has spent the past 16 months cultivating a shadow-GOP structure out of his Mar-a-Lago refuge, quite deliberately snubbed candidates like 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 has run for the Senate three times now and lost each time, desperately sought to cast himself as more in line with Trumpite values than Vance is, and enlisted the uber-conservative Ted Cruz to campaign with 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. And, in a crowded field, that bump was enough to do the trick.

Over the past week, much ink has been spilled parsing the differences between the many GOP candidates. Are they isolationist or do they believe in international engagement? Are they pro-big business, or are they at least rhetorically in a more 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. But the similarities of most of the primary candidates far outweigh these differences. In the Trump era, primary elections are basically now an homage to the personality cult of Trump. Mike Gibbons, who finished fourth in the Senate primary, spent $11 million of his own money trying to channel his inner Trump in a series of TV commercials. 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.

When candidates do distance themselves from Trump and his foul rhetoric, they tend to fare poorly. In Ohio, the candidate who came in a close third was State Sen. 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. Yet, despite all of that, he came in with well under one quarter of the ballots cast.

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 as a creed may be dominant in the Republican party, but Trump the individual could well be past the peak of his powers to dictate who that party nominates to be its candidates in marquee political races.

Yes, J.D. Vance won; but he did so in a field lacking heavyweight contenders, with his leading rival, Josh Mandel, a repeat loser in Senate races. 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. At the end of the day, the number of Ohioans who voted for Vance was 340,000, barely one-eighth the 2.68 million who voted for Trump in 2020. 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. And in that race Trump fell flat. 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 percent over a rival who, while not explicitly endorsed by Trump, made clear on the campaign trail that he marched in lockstep with the MAGA movement.

Trump has demanded that candidates running in primary races throughout the country, in races from local to state to federal, kiss the ring. In 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. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been a particular bogeyman for Trump since the November 2020 election, is far out ahead of the Trump-favored candidate David Perdue. 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.