Ohio primary voters head to polls in first test of Trump’s influence in GOP midterms
▶ Watch Video: Ohio voters to pick Senate nominees in closely-watched primary this week
The 2022 primaries kick into high gear Tuesday when Ohio and Indiana voters head to the polls, initiating a month of elections that will preview where the parties could be heading in November’s midterm elections.
The brightest spotlight Tuesday is shining on Ohio’s Republican Senate primary, featuring a crowded field of candidates vying to represent the party in the race to replace retiring GOP Senator Rob Portman.
Ohio voters will also decide who the Senate Democratic nominee will be, whether incumbent Republican Governor Mike DeWine will get a shot at a second term and which former southwest Ohio mayor will earn the Democratic nomination. The state also features a slew of interesting House primaries, including a rematch between Democratic Representative Shontel Brown and Nina Turner, and a former Trump aide trying to win a spot in Congress.
Indiana, which also has a Senate race this fall, already has its candidates, since Republican Todd Young, who will be a heavy favorite, and Democrat Thomas McDermott Jr. are both running unopposed.
Here are the key races to watch:
Ohio Republican Senate Primary: A Test For Trump
Former President Donald Trump’s influence in the GOP will be tested in several primaries this month, and the first will come in the Ohio Senate primary. He endorsed venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance in mid-April, giving a jolt to Vance’s campaign in the closing stretch of the race.
Vance has embraced Trump’s populist, nationalist, right-wing brand of politics. He’s been railing against the migration crisis at the southern border, demanding that big tech companies be broken up and slamming old trade deals. Billionaire Peter Thiel has given at least $10 million to a super PAC supporting Vance’s campaign.
The Republican candidates largely agree on issues, but Vance distanced himself from his opponents on the war in Ukraine. He told Steve Bannon in February, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”
“It’s tragic. It’s terrible. What Valdimir Putin did was wrong in invading a sovereign country, but we have our own problems in the United States to focus on,” Vance said at a debate in March, echoing Trump’s “America first” rhetoric.
Vance lamented that “Congressional Republicans refused to give Donald Trump $4 billion for a border wall,” but gave “Joe Biden $14 billion for Ukrainian aid.” He said aid to Ukraine should be conditioned on “support for our border.”
Three of Vance’s main rivals were also vying for Trump’s endorsement. Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel campaigned on being “pro-God, pro-gun and pro-Trump.” Former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken bragged about the work she did campaigning for Trump in 2020. Investment banker Mike Gibbons often touted his financial commitments to Trump’s campaigns.
Vance and these opponents have all either falsely claimed that the 2020 election was stolen or raised unsubstantiated questions about widespread fraud.
Ultimately, Trump’s endorsement went to Vance, formerly a fierce Trump critic. Vance’s opponents have tried to use those words against him, but Trump told Ohio Republicans during a rally in late April to forget about those comments.
“He’s a guy who said some bad (expletive) about me,” Trump said at the rally. “But you know what? All the others did, also. In fact, if I went by that standard, I don’t think I would have ever endorsed anybody in the country.”
A Fox News poll released last week, conducted after Trump’s endorsement, showed Vance leading with 23%, up from 11% in a Fox News poll from early March. Vance was followed by Mandel (18%), Gibbons (13%), state Senator Matt Dolan (11%) and Timken (6%). Notably, 25% of voters said they were still undecided.
That poll also showed that 42% of Republican primary voters said Trump’s endorsement made them more inclined to support Vance, while 23% said it diminished their support.
An Emerson College poll released Saturday showed Vance (26%) just ahead of Mandel (24%) and Dolan (21%). Gibbons was at 17%, while Timken was at 8%.
One other incident drew significant attention between those Fox News polls: Mandel physically confronted Gibbons at a forum in March. Mandel accused Gibbons of dismissing his military service, though Gibbons insisted he did not make such an insinuation.
Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, is the only leading candidate to assert that President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. Unlike his rivals, he did not seek Trump’s endorsement, leaving a potential lane open for him if the Trump-aligned candidates divide that slice of the electorate enough.
Trump has told supporters not to back Dolan. “Anybody who changes the name of the ‘storied’ Cleveland Indians (from 1916), an original baseball franchise, to the Cleveland Guardians, is not fit to serve in the United States Senate,” Trump said in a statement last week.
Vance and Mandel supporters have been locked in a bitter feud in the campaign’s closing days. The pro-Mandel Club For Growth released an ad last week spotlighting Vance’s Trump criticisms and Trump’s previous endorsement of Mitt Romney, who Mandel spent a lot of time campaigning for in 2012. Club For Growth President David McIntosh has been a close Trump adviser in recent years.
While campaigning with Vance, Donald Trump Jr. slammed the group’s continued attacks on Vance. Vance even released a statement last week saying, “Josh Mandel and his allies have declared war on President Trump and the entire MAGA movement.”
Trump allies stepped up their criticism against Mandel when excerpts from the book “This Will Not Pass,” claimed that Mandel told Republicans in Washington “that he was parroting absurd rhetoric in the primary campaign out of a desire to court Trump and his supporters – but that was simply what he believed it would take to win.”
The closing days of the campaign brought a host of top surrogates to the state. Texas Senator Ted Cruz spent Friday and Saturday campaigning with Mandel. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz hit the trail for Vance on Saturday. Senator Josh Hawley campaigned with Vance on Sunday and has events with him on Monday. Portman is campaigning with Timken on Monday.
The Democratic Senate primary has been far less competitive. Congressman Tim Ryan of northeast Ohio entered the race in April 2021 and has raised millions of dollars as he appears set to cruise to victory on Tuesday night. He has built his campaign around a desire to “cut workers in on the deal.”
Ryan has focused his campaign on economic issues, including outsourcing, trade deals and minimum wage. Some Democrats are hopeful that his past success with working class white voters can give the party a chance in a state that Republicans have otherwise dominated in recent elections.
Ryan has a pair of challengers in his race, including Morgan Harper, a lawyer and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau official during the Obama administration. Harper has embraced progressive ideas like “Medicare for All” and expanding the Supreme Court. Tech executive Traci Johnson is also in the race.
Ohio was long considered a key battleground state, but Republicans have dominated most statewide races in recent years. Trump won the state by 8 points in 2020. But despite the GOP’s strength in the Buckeye State, the state’s other senator is a Democrat, , Sherrod Brown, who easily won reelection in 2018.
Whichever Republican emerges from the primary is likely to have significant resources. While every race is critical with a 50-50 split Senate, Democrats are expecting to dedicate more resources to trying to flip Republican-held seats in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Can anybody beat Mike DeWine?
Governor Mike DeWine is in a similar position to many of his Republican colleagues: He has to first defeat a primary challenge before he can fully focus on November, a similar position toTexas Governor Greg Abbott, who easily won his primary in March.
While DeWine doesn’t have Trump’s endorsement, he has incredibly high name recognition in Ohio given his years as governor, attorney general, U.S. senator and congressman.
Former Congressman Jim Renacci and farmer Joe Blystone are hoping that lingering conservative anger over DeWine’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic may spur voters in a different direction.
Renacci, in a meeting with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board last week, said DeWine “did not listen to the people” when he closed businesses and set other unilateral rules in 2020. DeWine said during that meeting that he believes he took a “middle-of-the-road position” on COVID and is “proud of what we did,” including pushing to open schools earlier than some planned last spring.
DeWine’s opponents have also tried to link him to an energy bribery scandal that took down top Ohio Republicans, including the former House speaker. DeWine has denied having any knowledge about any alleged improper actions by the person at the center of that scandal.
A Fox News poll released last week showed DeWine in a relatively safe position, leading his opponents with 43% of the vote. Renacci was at 24%, while Blystone had 19%.
DeWine has also trumpeted Intel’s decision to build semiconductors in Ohio, along with conservative victories in the legislature like abortion restritctions, a stand-your-ground law and a law allowing people to carry a weapon without a permit.
Democrats, meanwhile, are hanging their hopes on a pair of former mayors from southwest Ohio: John Cranley, the former mayor of Cincinnati, and Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton.
The state Democratic Party did not endorse a candidate in the primary, but the state’s top-elected Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown, is supporting Whaley.
The candidates agree on several issues, including legalizing marijuana, although Cranley emphasizes it more, keeping qualified immunity for police officers and opposing the concealed carry legislation that DeWine signed.
Whaley has criticized Cranley over abortion. He only recently announced that he supported aborition rights before he entered the primary, saying he changed his mind after he and his wife had to make their own fertility decision. Whaley has touted her support for abortion rights throughout her career. They have both said they’d veto new abortion restrictions.
There are a few interesting House primaries to monitor on Tuesday.
Representative Shontel Brown is facing another race against Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who was the campaign co-chair for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 run. Brown defeated Turner in a 2021 special election. Turner’s loss was seen as a setback for the progressive movement in challenging incumbent or more moderate Democrats, especially since Turner had high name recognition and strong fundraising.
The rematch is again a battle between the establishment and progressive wings of the Democratic party. Brown is backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the Congressional Black Caucus, Senator Sherrod Brown and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Turner is backed by Senator Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Working Families Party.
In addition to the Senate and Governor races, Trump’s team will be watching to see how Max Miller does in this open Republican primary in northeast Ohio. The seat was left open by Republican Congressman Bob Gibbs, who is retiring.
Trump will also be watching the crowded GOP primary in Ohio’s 13th District, left open by Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan. Trump endorsed former campaign advisory board member Madison Gesiotto Gilbert in March. Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is backing former staffer Shay Hawkins.