Trump’s Fingerprints Are All Over J.D. Vance’s Ohio Win

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J.D. When J.D. Vance was reminded by Sharpie of the names and allies he had to thank for their victory. None was more important than all-caps TRUMPThe middle of this 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.

Let’s start with some context.

In the past 15 months, SoIn Washington and the statehouse squares, many hours were spent discussing the former president Donald Trump’s influence within 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. The defectors claim that he has given up his leadership position last January 6th and that his threats seem more like bark than bite.

Both are convincing in small increments. But the real measure is Trump’s abilities to exercise democracy in truly competitive situations. Last year offered just one real test, Virginia’s race for Governor—and it was an imprecise petri dish for such an experiment. New York citizen 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. Virginia went from supporting Joe Biden with a 10-point lead in 2020 to voting for Youngkin two years later.

You are invited to 2022 when everyone in this country will go public with their opinions on the GOP, and how it might change. Washingtonians will be armed with Excel spreadsheets to keep track of the Ls and Ws.

Although the Texas March 1 primary had been the sole experiment in Texas, it was not complete. Many races in those states will now be resolved in run-offs. Trump still claimed he won 33-0 with his picks, even though seven of them faced no primary challengers and the other seven were incumbents. According to the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 98% of House incumbents have been elected to re-nomination since 1946.

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. Data so far shows that candidates who voted against Trump were three times more likely to win and had a better chance of reaching the second round than candidates wearing MAGA hats. It is compelling, and the early photos from Ohio show at least some echos.

On Tuesday, Trump was 14 for 14. 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. The U.S. Senate race, however, was everyone’s favorite. Vance seemed stuck on the ground for several months and then launched like a rocket just three weeks later.

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. Vance had previously been an active NeverTrumper, and publicly contemplated voting for Hillary Clinton. Vance then began to sing from Trump’s 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.

For the longest period, it seemed that Vance’s sudden change of heart was 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 was the target of a rivalry between his potential successors, who were fighting for Trumpier status. So much for John Boehner and John Kasich’s legacies.

On April 15, Trump supported Vance. This transformed what was a chaotic primary into something that could only be called manic. Donald Trump Jr. attended the Vance Roadshow, playing pugilist pluck and trolling everyone standing between Vance’s victory and his. And the elder Trump flew to Columbus’ exurban suburbs to bolster Vance’s campaign in person. Trump was the favorite, even though most of the other race members still believed in their status as MAGA-heads.

Vance’s performance is clear: Vance progressed from third with 10% support over 19 days to win Tuesday’s vote with 32%. In just three weeks, it was a 22-point swing. However, the narrative is complicated by another primary contest at the top. Gov. Mike DeWine, an older-school politician who has, except for a two year break, been running or in office since 1976, is as anti-Trumpy and non-Trumpy. 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 supported Renacci in his unsuccessful 2018 Senate campaign, but decided to stay out of the primary. Renacci even recruited Brad Parscale, a former Trump campaign manager.

DeWine won almost half of the votes on Tuesday.

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.

Although the Republican primaries were different, one can ask how a Trump endorsement could have helped the Governor’s race.

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. Vance, 37, is a rising star of the Republican Party and a force to be reckoned with for many decades. 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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