The battle for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Ohio, which will conclude with Tuesday’s primary there, is one of this year’s marquee political contests — in part because it will serve as a key test of former President Donald Trump’s influence over the GOP.
Trump endorsed J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” three weeks ago. But Vance and his top opponent, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, have been running neck and neck for so long that Trump appeared to confuse the two over the weekend.
“We’ve endorsed J.P., right? J.D. Mandel, and he’s doing great. They’re all doing good,” Trump said Saturday at a rally in Nebraska.
Meanwhile, the lone candidate in the primary to openly break with Trump is state Sen. Matt Dolan, who has repeatedly pushed back against the former president’s lies about the 2020 election. Dolan hopes to benefit from a late surge of interest from voters repelled by Mandel and Vance, two erstwhile moderates who have moved well to the right in an effort to court Trump supporters.
A series of polls taken over the last few weeks, following Trump’s endorsement of Vance, have found Vance jumping to the front of the pack, but not breaking away from it. Instead, Vance, Mandel and Dolan appear to be effectively tied, with businessman Mike Gibbons right behind them.
“It’s a race where none of the candidates ever really separated from the field, or articulated a message that resonated,” said former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, who is not currently backing any particular candidate. “So in the end it came down to Trump’s approbation, which is always a one-way street. He gave it, ultimately, and that may make the difference with an otherwise unremarkable primary election.”
The winning Republican on Tuesday is likely to face Rep. Tim Ryan, a moderate Democrat, in November’s general election. The race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman is one of a handful of contests across the country that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Political insiders are also watching the race to gauge Trump’s ability to steer Republican voters. A little more than a year after he lost reelection, Trump’s iron grip on the party seems to have loosened, as he’s backing several candidates who are expected to lose primaries in the coming weeks. However, he remains the most popular figure in the GOP and will be the de facto frontrunner for the party’s 2024 nomination should he choose to run again.
Dolan, who’s garnered more national interest since pulling close with Mandel and Vance, spent the weekend knocking on doors with campaign volunteers, according to Fox News.
Vance, meanwhile, campaigned with controversial Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene during his final leg of the primary campaign. And Mandel spent his closing weekend in the race touring the state with Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz and Mandel visited a church in Toledo and shot hoops together in a small arcade-style game. Cruz, during a separate stop in support of Mandel, mocked Republicans who invoke Trump’s name in an effort to win voters.
“Every candidate says, ‘I love Donald Trump.’ ‘No, no, no, I love Donald Trump more!’ ‘No, no! I have Donald Trump tattooed on my rear end!’” Cruz said, to scattered laughs from a crowd in Dayton.