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When J.D. Vance took the stage Tuesday evening in Cincinnati to declare victory in his Senate primary, the best-selling author and former venture capitalist had in hand a sheet of yellow legal paper whose ragged top suggested it had been ripped from the pad a little too hastily. The names of allies scrawled in Sharpie reminded the Republican whom he needed to thank for his come-from-behind win. And none was bigger than an all-caps TRUMP in the middle of the page.
“Now this campaign, I really think, was a referendum on what kind of a Republican Party we want, and what kind of a country we want,” Vance said.
He’s right that the results suggest more than a little about the future of the GOP, even if the lessons are about as clear-cut as the top of Vance’s jagged cheatsheet.
First, some context.
Over the last 15 months, so, so many hours in Washington and in statehouse squares have been spent debating the power that former President Donald Trump retains inside the Republican Party. His loyalists—and his perceived captives—say he is still the most coveted and powerful endorsement in the game and a danger to those who cross him. His defectors argue that he surrendered that leadership role last year on Jan. 6 and that his threats are more bark than bite.
Both cases are compelling in fits and starts. The true measure, however, is what Trump can do when it comes time to actually practice democracy in truly competitive environments. Last year offered just one real test, Virginia’s race for Governor—and it was an imprecise petri dish for such an experiment. As a New York Times columnist put it last year, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin was able to “have your Trump and eat it, too,” embracing only some of the Trumpian elements of the party. In turn, Virginia went from backing Joe Biden by a 10-point margin in 2020 to electing Youngkin by two points a year later.
Well, welcome to 2022, when every corner of this country is going to go on the record with how they see the current GOP and what its future might look like. And those in Washington will have their Excel spreadsheets ready to track the Ws and Ls.
Before Tuesday, the March 1 primary in Texas had been the lone experiment, but it is an unfinished one; many of those races will be settled in run-offs on May 24. Trump nevertheless claimed he went 33-0 in his picks, ignoring the fact that seven of his picks faced no primary challengers, and another seven ran as incumbents. (As a rule, incumbency is tough to beat; since 1946, 98% of House incumbents who have sought re-nomination have won, according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics.)
Looking more broadly at Texas’ primaries, researchers at the Brookings Institution tracked whether the GOP contenders ran as Trump-branded figures or mainstream conservatives, regardless of their endorsement statuses. The data so far suggests candidates who ditched Trump had a higher chance of winning and were more than three times as likely to advance to a runoff than those wearing a MAGA hat. Compelling, and early snapshots from Ohio suggest at least some echoes.
Trump went 14-for-14 on Tuesday in Ohio. That included his backing of Max Miller, a former Trump aide who is now the party’s nominee to replace Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of a handful of House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment and then decided to pack it in rather than defend the vote to his party’s base. But the U.S. Senate race was the one everyone was watching, as Vance appeared stuck on the ground for months before launching like a rocket three weeks ago.
Vance’s shift in fortunes appeared to offer a clear-cut example of the Trump Effect. He entered the race with deep-pocketed patrons and a national profile buoyed by a 2016 memoir that made him the country’s go-to decoder of the working poor voters who elevated Trump. But in Ohio, which twice voted for Trump by eight percentage points, many Republicans were initially wary of Vance, who had been a prominent NeverTrumper and had publicly mulled voting for Hillary Clinton. So Vance began singing from the Trump hymn book. “I’m not just a flip-flopper, I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump,” he told TIME’s Molly Ball at a Cincinnati diner last year.
The change of heart for the longest time seemed insufficient. Vance’s four main rivals — three of whom were chasing the MAGA blessing — hammered Vance for his past comments, like the time he called Trump “another opioid” who stood in to provide “easy escape from the pain.” Long gone were the country-club Republicans that dominated Ohio’s GOP, like Sen. Rob Portman, whose potential successors were locked in a fight over who could be Trumpier than Trump. (So much for the legacies of George Voinovich, John Boehner, and John Kasich.)
Then, on April 15, Trump endorsed Vance, sending what had been a jumbled primary into a status that can only be described as manic. Donald Trump Jr. joined the Vance roadshow with pugilistic pluck, trolling anyone standing between Vance and a victory. And the elder Trump flew to Columbus’ exurban suburbs to bolster Vance’s campaign in person. Even though almost everyone else in the race still clung to the patina of being a MAGA-head, Trump had anointed his favorite.
The numbers show a clear trend: in the span of 19 days, Vance moved from a persistent third place with about 10% support, to winning on Tuesday with 32% of the vote. It was an almost 22-point swing in under three weeks.
Yet the other primary fight at the top of the ballot complicates that narrative. Gov. Mike DeWine is about as non-Trumpy as the come, an old-school pol who, with the exception of a two-year break, has been in office or running for it consistently since 1976. In the GOP primary, DeWine’s challengers, including former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, attacked the governor for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While DeWine broadly won terrific marks for following the science and ignoring the political pressure, some of the party’s base viewed his approach as heavy-handed. Trump had endorsed Renacci during his failed 2018 Senate bid but stayed out of the primary, even after Renacci recruited former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale as an adviser.
On Tuesday, DeWine easily survived, drawing nearly half the vote.
Vance and DeWine are now set to face off against two mainstream Democrats who handily won their own primaries on Tuesday: Rep. Tim Ryan who is looking to move to the Senate, and former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley who wants to upgrade to the Governor’s Mansion in Bexley. Neither can credibly be painted with the same “woke” brush as the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.
While the two Republican primaries had their own specific dynamics, it does ask what a Trump endorsement in the race for Governor could have done.
Every race is unique, and it would be a mistake for future candidates to try to replicate Vance elsewhere or to ditch anything looking like Renacci’s strategy as obviously doomed. After all, Vance is now a confirmed rising star in the Republican Party, and, at 37, a potential force for decades to come. He figured out how to do a Trumpian pirouette and may be part of the MAGA movement’s next generation.
Ohio, however, is worth studying for the power of a Trump action—and that of his inaction. Vance was Trump’s first tangible reroute of a primary while in exile, and it may not be the last time the ex-President’s meddling swing results.
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