CINCINNATI — Buoyed by former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, J.D. Vance prevailed in Ohio’s competitive Republican Senate primary Tuesday and will face off in November against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, NBC News projects.
In a Democratic congressional primary, NBC News projects Rep. Shontel Brown defeated former state Sen. Nina Turner, a progressive insurgent who had previously challenged Brown in a special election last year.
Vance, the author of the bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy,” came out on top of a hotly contested five-way primary in which more than $70 million was spent on the airwaves as several candidates claimed to be the only true pro-Trump conservative in the race.
Trump’s endorsement of Vance over former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and others last month upended a contest that had revolved around a very public audition for his support. It came 10 days after early voting began, and ballots cast on Election Day skewed more heavily for Vance than those cast during early balloting.
“Thanks to the president for everything, for endorsing me,” Vance told supporters gathered Tuesday night inside a convention center ballroom in downtown Cincinnati.
He added a shot at the media — “there’s some good ones in the back there, there’s also some bad ones, too, let’s be honest. ... They wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s America First agenda.”
The former president is sure to trumpet the victory in Ohio’s primary, only the second of the year, which was widely seen as offering an early test of Trump’s influence and the overall mood of the electorate ahead of November’s midterm elections.
"I couldn’t be happier about J.D.'s victory tonight," Donald Trump Jr., the former president's son, who campaigned with Vance down the stretch, said in a statement to NBC News.
"J.D. represents a new generation of conservative fighters in the vein of my father who understand that the time for talking is over, and the time for getting things done is here," Trump Jr. added.
DeWine — once popular with voters in both parties because of decisive early leadership during the Covid pandemic — was fighting for renomination against several challengers running to his right. Meanwhile, Whaley defeated former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.
Republicans are favored in both statewide contests in November's general election as Ohio has shifted deeper into the GOP column in recent years.
The rematch between Brown and Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District also has captured attention. The Democrats clashed last year in a bitter special election that dwelled on Turner’s past criticisms of President Joe Biden, whom she worked against as a co-chair and prominent surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 White House campaign.
But it's the GOP Senate primary that became a closely watched barometer of national politics.
Vance, a best-selling author and venture capitalist who had no political roots in Ohio, spent the early days of his campaign apologizing for his extensive criticism of Trump in 2016. And Trump — drawn to the idea of elevating a convert, particularly one who shared his populist and nationalist instincts — shrugged off the "not so great things" that Vance had said. It didn't hurt that Vance had a champion in Peter Thiel, the Trump-friendly tech entrepreneur who has poured more than $13 million into a pro-Vance super PAC.
Trump's endorsement helped Vance, whose campaign was only beginning to advertise on TV and attract institutional support in Ohio, quickly climb to the top of the polls. But three others who had presented themselves as the purest pro-Trump candidates — Mandel, former state party leader Jane Timken and investment banker Mike Gibbons — remained in the race.
Meanwhile, polls over the last week showed state Sen. Matt Dolan, who ran his campaign as an antidote to Trump's personality-driven politics and didn't court the former president's endorsement, rising. Vance spent the closing days swinging at Mandel and Dolan.
Mandel, twice elected to statewide office and a losing Senate candidate in 2012, was the early GOP front-runner based largely on name recognition. The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that had been close with Trump, backed his campaign through a super PAC that spent millions of dollars attacking other candidates, including Vance, for his past criticisms of Trump.
Other candidates showed flashes of promise. Timken came close to landing Trump's early endorsement, given that he had handpicked her to run the state party and, with her guidance, won Ohio by 8 points in 2020. But Timken's pitch was complicated by kind words she had for Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, in an interview with Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer shortly after Gonzalez was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. Trump's advisers encouraged him to wait and see how the field developed.
Timken earned Portman's endorsement and hired former Trump advisers like Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski, but none of it was enough to impress the former president. And although Timken put some of her own money into the campaign, it was no match for other self-funders and super PACs playing in the race.
Gibbons, for example, briefly bought himself front-runner status. The more than $16 million he lent his campaign helped pay for a crush of TV ads that boosted his name recognition and elevated him into a polling tie with Mandel. But Gibbons' unpolished speaking style — he is not, he and his advisers would constantly remind reporters, a politician — hurt him in the early debates, details of which allies of other candidates gleefully reported back to Trump. And a near-physical confrontation instigated by Mandel at their first debate ultimately reflected poorly on both candidates.
Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, invested more than $10 million of his money, running ads that promoted a conservative policy agenda without promoting Trump. He also was the only primary hopeful to unequivocally say the 2020 presidential election was not stolen from Trump. But while Dolan's approach caught the former president's attention — twice Trump issued statements blasting the baseball team for changing its name from Indians to Guardians — he was never attacked heavily in TV ads.
"J.D. Vance and I have debated our differences, and in this hard fought campaign he was successful," Dolan said in a concession statement late Tuesday. "Just as I will never quit fighting for Ohio, I pledge to unite our party and endorse J.D. Vance to be our next U.S. senator."
In his victory speech, Vance offered kind words for each of his former rivals, even as some in the audience booed Mandel.
"I hope to earn the support of Josh Mandel and all the other candidates who ran," Vance said.
Overall, the Republican Senate primary is the most expensive race, in terms of advertising, so far in 2022. As of Tuesday, the GOP candidates and the outside groups supporting them had spent a combined $70 million, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.
Henry J. Gomez reported from Cincinnati. Alex Seitz-Wald reported from Washington.