COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In the end, Donald Trump was the kingmaker he was expected to be, and JD Vance is one election away from once being a “never-Trump guy” to becoming a Trump-backed U.S. Senator.
Less than three weeks after Trump endorsed the Cincinnati-area author and venture capitalist, Vance leapfrogged the one-time frontrunners in Ohio’s crowded Republican Senate race and captured the victory.
Vance is now the favorite for the November general election, which will be headlined by Ohio’s Senate and governor contests. And in a conservative-leaning state, the Democrats face uphill battles despite their name recognition and strong primary performances.
Vance proves value of Trump endorsement
It was an earlier night than his opponents hoped, as the Associated Press projected Vance the winner just two hours after polls closed on Ohio’s highest-profile primary of 2022.
His top two challengers were ultraconservative former state treasurer Josh Mandel and the more moderate state Sen. Matt Dolan, both of whom the last poll before Election Day put well in contention. But Vance won by more than 8 percentage points, per nearly complete election results late Tuesday night.
“It’s clear that the Trump endorsement in the race was really crucial, given that JD Vance was really in a tough place two or three months ago,” said Kurt Pyle, an assistant professor of political science at Kenyon College in Knox County.
Vance was polling near the single digits as recently as March, but Trump’s endorsement in mid-April made his fans take a closer look. Vance also enjoyed a funding spike afterward, including $3.5 million in Super PAC money from tech billionaire Peter Thiel.
“The endorsement and the outside money from Peter Thiel really swung his fortunes,” Pyle said.
That money helped Vance beat candidates who poured massive personal fortunes into their campaigns. Dolan, Gibbons and Timken invested more than $10 million each.
Mandel did well in rural counties on Tuesday, and Dolan did well in some urban and suburban areas, including Franklin County and the Cleveland area. But one suburban county Dolan didn’t capture: Delaware, where Trump held a rally with Vance a couple of weeks ago.
Results with 99% of precincts reporting showed Vance with 32.20%, Mandel in second with 23.93% and Dolan — who Trump disavowed and was once counted out the race — in a close third at 23.31%.
“I still think it’s noteworthy that Matt Dolan appears to have come in third place,” said Brianna Mack, an assistant professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware.
“Perhaps this is still a signal for institutional Republicans that perhaps not all hope is lost, that you don’t have to get on the ‘Trump train’ per se.”
Ryan’s messaging key to Democratic flip in November
On the Democratic side, Youngstown-area U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan breezed past progressive challenges from former Obama consumer protection official Morgan Harper and Columbus activist Traci Johnson.
Ryan will now focus on an uphill battle in the general election against Vance, who has the luxury of running in a state Trump won in 2020 by 8 points.
“I would say that Vance starts as the clear favorite in November against Ryan, given where the 2020 state results were, and the fact that the midterm environment looks like it’s going to be Republican-friendly,” Pyle said.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political analysis newsletter based at the University of Virginia, currently rates the November outcome as “likely Republican.”
Democrats, however, see Ohio as one of their best chances nationally to pick up a Senate seat. But both Pyle and Mack said Ryan will have to adopt the right kind of rhetoric.
“A Democrat not named Sherrod Brown hasn’t gotten over 40% in an Ohio U.S. Senate race since 1998,” Pyle said, which means Ryan needs to “think about what’s made Sherrod Brown successful if he wants to have a chance in the race.”
Ryan’s TV ads so far have focused on issues that can more easily cross party lines, like trade, supporting police and economic threats from China. In his victory speech Tuesday night, said he wants the U.S. to “leapfrog China” and once again be “the manufacturing powerhouse of the world.”
“It’s clear that Ryan is willing to signal toward some of the more moderate interests that are perhaps listening to what Trump has to say, especially as it pertains to jobs,” Mack said.
She said if Ryan can speak to these issues “while still using a bit more of Sherrod Brown’s working people’s ethic” and rhetoric Brown used to win reelection in 2018, “I would not be surprised if Ryan would edge out better.”
“We’ll see if that style of a populist sort of candidate without some of the other aspects of what made Trump and other candidates successful,” Pyle said, “if that’s appealing enough to peel off voters or not or if the party label is ultimately the dominant thing.”
DeWine wins with challengers splitting vote
Gov. Mike DeWine easily won the Republican nomination for governor — it took the AP just 46 minutes to call it — as his two main competitors split the opposition running to his right.
“It sounds like the whole movement to impeach DeWine or have him removed throughout COVID and all these things, he has survived,” Mack said.
Farmer Joe Blystone performed well in rural areas and former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci captured some of his native Northeast Ohio, but DeWine won by 20 points. If Renacci and Blystone were one candidate, however, DeWine would have lost by 2 points.
“I think that DeWine definitely benefited from the lack of Trump endorsement in the race,” Pyle said, “and Renacci and Blystone sort of each pulled from different places.”
“I don’t know if one candidate would have been enough,” Pyle added, “but it definitely would have been a far, far closer race if it had been a one-on-one.”
DeWine, the country’s 9th-most popular governor, has been criticized by both major parties but can point to bipartisan victories, especially on economic development.
“I am so optimistic about the future of this state. This is our time,” DeWine said in his victory speech, talking about business investment under his watch that includes a $20 billion Intel computer chip plant coming to Licking County.
Like Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat, Sabato’s Crystal Ball sees the gubernatorial race as “likely Republican.”
Whaley hoping for upset in November
DeWine’s underdog challenger in the general election will be former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, who beat former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley, 65% to 35%, in the Democratic governor primary.
“She will have an uphill battle to try and convince folks that she would be the better option,” Mack said.
Whaley, the first woman to win the nomination for Ohio governor in the state’s 219-year history, was endorsed by Sherrod Brown and had the most name recognition in the primary. She blasted DeWine in her victory speech, saying he is “out of touch, corrupt and doesn’t care about you.”
“Ohio isn’t a red state or a blue state,” Whaley said, “it’s a frustrated state that has been ignored by politicians from both parties for far too long.”
Whaley was mayor during the deadly 2019 Dayton mass shooting. She criticized DeWine for visiting the city back then and promising action on gun violence but later loosening regulations, like signing a “stand your ground” law last year and permit-less carry for firearms in March.
“Nine dead in Dayton wasn’t worth the political risk for Mike DeWine,” Whaley said Tuesday night.
Mack, however, said it will only take “something truly egregious” for DeWine to lose to Whaley, while Pyle noted that anti-DeWine Republicans would rather vote for him than a Democrat.
“I don’t think it’s going to be amongst many Republican voters an enthusiastic DeWine vote,” Pyle said, “but it’s definitely not going to be a Democratic vote. And as long as the Senate race gets participation up enough, then DeWine will probably be fine.”