J.D. Vance looked like just another Ohio also-ran in the crowded GOP Senate primary.
Then Donald Trump decided to get involved.
On Good Friday, April 15, the former president weighed in with an endorsement that enabled Vance to clinch the Republican Party’s nomination for the open seat on Tuesday, besting better-funded rivals and putting an exclamation point on the singular role Trump plays as kingmaker and center of gravity in today’s Republican Party.
Vance’s win was the first major test of Trump’s endorsement power in 2022, and it is yet another sign that his influence over the Republican Party is strong enough that he could secure its nomination for president again in two years.
"Anybody who dismisses Donald Trump as not a major factor in the party is crazy," said Dave Carney, a veteran national GOP consultant.
Bill Kristol, an anti-Trump Republican, said on Twitter, “When Trump talks, Republicans listen.” He pointed out that Vance was in third place in polls, with about 10 percent support, before Trump endorsed him. Two months before, the super PAC backing him took the rare step of publicly saying he was losing.
It’s not just Vance’s win that matters, Republicans said. The bigger the margin, the likelier it is that Trump will crusade for his candidates in tougher May races in Pennsylvania and Georgia — or that he’ll endorse in Arizona’s Aug. 2 Senate primary, one Trump confidant said.
"The greater the margin of victory for J.D. Vance, the higher the likelihood that Donald Trump endorses Blake Masters in Arizona," said a Republican associate of Trump’s who has spoken to the former president about his endorsement, requesting anonymity to describe private conversations. "Vance’s win proves the concept that he can take someone from third or fourth place and pull them into the lead in a crowded primary."
Trump recently joined a fundraising call for Masters, a sign of his interest.
So far, Trump-endorsed candidates are 55-0 this cycle, advisers said. They note that his first endorsed candidate this cycle, Max Miller, won his congressional primary Tuesday in Ohio as Vance carried the Senate nomination.
Still, Trump's team expects some losses out of the more than 120 candidates he has publicly backed. Last month, Trump took the extraordinary step of pulling his endorsement from Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama over his lackluster campaigning.
In Georgia, Trump persuaded former Sen. David Perdue to run for governor, but Perdue is struggling to catch Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump loathes for refusing to help overturn his 2020 re-election loss to President Joe Biden.
In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz over hedge fund mogul Dave McCormick, who has unleashed a torrent of ads on TV, radio and the internet savaging the former “Dr. Oz” TV star as a phony conservative.
“Oz is not a slam dunk. I still think McCormick wins,” said Rob Gleason, the former chair of the Pennsylvania GOP. “But even if Oz loses, Trump is going to take the credit for getting him so far ahead anyway.”
Kristin Davison, who consulted for Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel in Ohio and McCormick in Pennsylvania, said the two races have important distinctions. In Ohio, Republican opponents attacked Vance almost exclusively for once having been an anti-Trump Republican, an attack that lost its sting with Trump’s endorsement. But in Pennsylvania, McCormick has run a more complete campaign.
“The Trump endorsement forgives being anti-Trump. It doesn’t forgive ideology,” Davison said.
Still, there are Republican critics who think Trump is apt to take too much credit.
“It’s not like J.D. Vance is getting 70 percent of the vote. And if he wins with only 30 or 40 percent, that means 60 to 70 percent of Republicans aren’t moved by the Trump endorsement,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican pollster for John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser before he became an outspoken critic of the former president.
But former Ohio Senate candidate Bernie Moreno saw the power of Trump’s support, or lack thereof, firsthand and bowed out of the race in February after a meeting with Trump.
He agreed to back whomever Trump eventually supported, and he said Tuesday’s result validates how influential Trump remains in GOP politics.
"Absolutely! He remains incredibly popular, rightfully so,” Moreno said.
Vance will face Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan in November.
On Tuesday, Vance basked in his Trump-backed win and channeled the former president in swiping at the media.
"I've got to say, a lot of the fake news media — and there are some good ones in the back there, and there's some bad ones, too, let's be honest — but they wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump's America First agenda," Vance said in his victory speech Tuesday night at a downtown Cincinnati convention hall. "Ladies and gentlemen, it ain't the death of the America First agenda."
Taylor Budowich, Trump's communications director, credited Vance for his hard work but made sure to point out Trump's share of the victory.
"The power of President Trump’s endorsement is undeniable, his dominance over the Republican powerbrokers in D.C. cannot be overstated," Budowich said in an email.