COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Bestselling author JD Vance has won Ohio’s contentious and hyper-competitive GOP Senate primary, buoyed by Donald Trump’s endorsement in a race widely seen as an early test of the former president’s hold on his party as the midterm season kicks into high gear.
Vance’s win brings to a close an exceptionally bitter and expensive primary contest that, at one point, saw two candidates nearly come to blows on a debate stage. And it marks a major victory for Trump, who has staked his reputation as a GOP kingmaker on his ability to pull his chosen candidates across the finish line.
Vance had been behind in the polls before Trump waded into the race less than three weeks ago, endorsing the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and venture capitalist despite Vance’s history as a staunch Trump critic. Vance has since said he was wrong and, like most of his rivals, tied himself to the former president, eagerly courting his endorsement and running on his “America First” platform, underscoring the extent to which the GOP has transformed in his image.
Vance will face Democrat Tim Ryan, the 10-term Democratic congressman who easily won his three-way primary Tuesday night. But November’s general election to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman is expected to be an uphill climb for Ryan in a state Trump won twice by an 8-point margin and in what is expected to be a brutal election year for Democrats trying to hold their congressional majorities.
Tuesday marks the first multistate contest of the 2022 campaign and comes the day after the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that suggests the court could be poised to overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Such a decision could have a dramatic impact on the course of the midterms, when control of Congress, governors' mansions and key elections offices are at stake.
At the Strongsville library in suburban Cleveland, 84-year-old George Clark said he voted for Vance based on Trump's endorsement.
“I know he’s had some bad press, but I know he’s a conservative and I always vote for conservatives.” Clark said.
But Joanne Mondak, 71, said she voted for state Sen. Matt Dolan, the only major candidate who did not aggressively court Trump. The rest of the field, she said, are “nutcakes" who are “too much Trump."
Trump on Tuesday reminded Ohio voters of his stake in the race.
Calling into a Columbus radio show, Trump praised all the candidates seeking the GOP nomination, but said he chose to endorse Vance despite his past Trump criticism because he believes he is best positioned to win the seat in November.
Vance had been trailing in the polls until the former president backed the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and one-time Trump critic in a contest that revolved largely around him. While the timing of Trump’s endorsement — less than three weeks before Election Day and as early voting was already underway — may have dulled its impact, it was a major blow to former state treasurer Josh Mandel, Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, who had all gone to elaborate lengths to court Trump and his voters.
The race will also go down as the most expensive in state history, with more than $66 million in TV and radio spending alone, according to the Columbus-based Medium Buying firm.
Ryan, a 10-term Democratic congressman who ran a failed bid for president in 2020, has tried to distance himself from the national Democratic Party ahead of what is expected to be a brutal November for Democrats. Campaigning in sweatshirts and baseball caps, he has fashioned himself as a blue-collar crusader fighting for working families.
During his acceptance speech, Ryan grew emotional when speaking about the community his steelworker grandfather was able to build while holding a well-paying union job.
“I am absolutely in my bones certain that we can do this if we come together, and it’s not about finding our differences. It’s not about hate,” he said.
Buoyed by historical trends and Democratic President Joe Biden's deep unpopularity, Republicans are optimistic about retaking the House and Senate come November. A new president's party almost always loses in seats in subsequent midterm elections and Republicans hope soaring inflation, high energy prices and lingering frustrations over the country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will further boost their prospects.
Democrats, meanwhile, are banking the GOP — with Trump’s help — will elect candidates so extreme they prove unelectable come November. A Supreme Court decision on abortion could also galvanize traditional Democratic voters.
“By all rights, history tells us that the Democrats are going to lose control of the House,” said Dale Butland, a Democratic strategist in Ohio. “By all rights, we should lose control of the Senate, too. However, the only thing that could save us is if the Republicans nominate a bunch of far-right crazies that are unacceptable in a general election.”
Also in Ohio, Democrat Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, will take on incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio’s general election after both secured their parties’ nominations Tuesday evening.
While DeWine is widely known in Ohio after a 40-year political career, he faced fierce backlash from conservatives over the COVID-19 shutdowns and mandates he imposed during the early months of the pandemic.
DeWine’s three opponents — former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, former state Rep. Ron Hood and farmer Joe Blystone — all tapped into that anger, but appear to have split the far-right vote. Still, DeWine didn’t take any chances and poured millions into advertising during the race’s final weeks.
On the Democratic side, Whaley became the first woman in state history to receive a major party’s backing. She defeated former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in a race that drew relatively little attention as much of the state focused on the contentious Senate Republican primary and the ongoing redistricting legal battle. Whaley had the support of the state’s top Democrat, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a popular household name, while Cranley had the backing of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
The two candidates saw eye-to-eye on most major issues — guns, abortion rights, social justice — but Whaley had repeatedly pointed out that Cranley only recently said he was pro-choice.
Trump-backed Secretary of State Frank LaRose won his party’s nomination for another term, beating conservative challenger John Adams, who questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election. LaRose will face Democrat Chelsea Clark, a suburban Cincinnati City Council member and businesswoman, in November’s general election.
In the House, Republican Max Miller, a former Trump campaign and White House aide, won the GOP nomination in the sprawling new 7th District in northeast Ohio, despite allegations from his ex-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, that he grew violent with her as their relationship deteriorated. He has denied the charges.
Miller was initially recruited to challenge Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment. But Gonzalez chose to retire instead.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, more than a dozen state House members are trying to hold off Republican primary challengers who want to push the Legislature further to the right.
Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Patrick Orsagas in Columbus, Steve Peoples in New York and Mark Gillispie in Strongsville, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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Jill Colvin And Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press