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Ohio primaries to test Trump’s power over the GOP base

Ohio voters will decide whether the former president really is a kingmaker and whether the insurgent has left lost some steam in the Democratic Party.
Photo illustration of Republican Ohio Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel with stars and a large "O"
Author J.D. Vance and  former state Treasurer Josh Mandel are two of the Republicans vying for the Senate nomination.NBC News; Getty Images; AP

WASHINGTON — Voters are heading to the polls Tuesday in Ohio, where the year’s second statewide primary contests will offer insights into former President Donald Trump’s influence and the mood of the electorate ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The marquee contest is the five-way Republican free-for-all for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman. The latest polls show no runaway leader and plenty of undecided voters after the candidates and their allies spent more than $73 million on ads, per ad tracking firm AdImpact.

J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and venture capitalist, is seen as the candidate to beat after he earned Trump’s coveted endorsement, but former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons have remained competitive while each claiming to be the only real conservatives in the race. 

Meanwhile, state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, has stayed relevant while running as a more traditional conservative in the mold of Portman by trying to position himself above the fray, with TV ads urging voters to ignore the “nonsense” and “name-calling” of his opponents.

A Fox News poll released last week showed Vance at 23 percent, Mandel at 18 percent, Gibbons at 13 percent, Dolan at 11 percent and former GOP Chair Jane Timken at 6 percent — with 25 percent still undecided.

The race, which has been marked by ugly attacks and mutual accusations of phony fealty to Trump, is seen as a key test of the former president’s continued political strength and ability to bend his party to his will ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.

Vance and Mandel openly competed for Trump’s endorsement. While Vance ultimately won it, Mandel, who is backed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other conservatives, pitched himself in a recent ad as “Pro-GOD, Pro-TRUMP, Pro-LIFE.”

Trump himself seemed to have difficulty distinguishing the two, saying at a rally in Nebraska on Sunday that he had endorsed “J.D. Mandel.”

There’s less suspense on the Democratic side of the Senate contest, where Rep. Tim Ryan is expected to claim his party’s nomination, but he would head into November as an underdog in a state Democrats have struggled to win in recent years.

Further down the ballot, Democrats are watching a competitive congressional primary where Rep. Shontel Brown is once again facing progressive former state Sen. Nina Turner, who led Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign before entering last year’s special election against Brown for the Cleveland-area House.

The special election became a high-profile clash between the so-called Democratic establishment and the party’s insurgent left wing, with each candidate spending over $3 million before Brown prevailed by about 5 percentage points.

This year’s race has drawn less attention. Brown is seen as stronger now, thanks to the power of incumbency and recent endorsements from both President Joe Biden and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Brown joined after entering Congress. 

Meanwhile, both parties in Ohio have primaries for governor.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s path to re-election was complicated after Trump and others on the right criticized him over his Covid lockdowns and for refusing to join Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election. Trump won Ohio that year.

But Trump never made DeWine a target like he did other Republican officials who crossed him. And polls suggest the two candidates running to DeWine’s right, former Rep. Jim Renacci and restaurateur Joe Blystone, are splitting the anti-DeWine vote, giving the governor a consistent lead.

Democrats are choosing between two former mayors, John Cranley of Cincinnati and Nan Whaley of Dayton, to go up against DeWine or whomever Republicans nominate. 

But, as with the Senate race, the GOP is favored to keep the governor’s mansion in November as Ohio, once the quintessential swing state, drifts further into the GOP column.