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Opinion With or without Trump, Tuesday’s primaries portend a MAGA year ahead

Madison Gesiotto Gilbert at a rally with supporters on April 23. Gilbert won her primary in Ohio's 13th District on Tuesday. (Joe Maiorana/AP)

The message from Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio and Indiana: It’s looking to be a good year for populist conservatives and the Republican Party, and a bad one for Democrats and the GOP old guard.

There was an unmistakable populist trend in the Republican races. In Ohio, U.S. Senate nominee J.D. Vance’s surprisingly large victory was just the vanguard of this army. Two Trump-endorsed congressional candidates, Max Miller and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, won their primaries on “America First” themes, and candidates that former president Donald Trump did not endorse ran and won on these themes, too.

In Ohio’s 9th District, J.R. Majewski, a veteran who once painted Trump’s face on his front lawn, unexpectedly beat two state legislators to win the right to take on longtime Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur for a seat recently gerrymandered to elect a Republican. And a Black female Air Force veteran, Jennifer-Ruth Green, easily trounced a former member of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration, Blair Milo, to capture the GOP nod in Indiana’s 1st District. Conservative outsiders are still the Republican flavor du jour.

This doesn’t mean that Trump reigns supreme. While his endorsement clearly helped Vance, it’s still notable that over two-thirds of voters chose someone else. Gesiotto Gilbert also won by an unexpectedly narrow margin, getting less than 30 percent of the vote. Trump is clearly influential, but he’s just not the almighty emperor many make him out to be.

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But that is cold comfort for the GOP’s old business-friendly wing. Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan was an example par excellence of the sort of candidate that faction used to be able to drag over the finish line. Yet, despite spending over $11 million, Dolan finished third in the Senate primary. It’s instructive to compare his showing to Mitt Romney’s in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. Romney narrowly beat back former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, an early prototype of today’s populist conservatism, by running up big margins in the state’s large cities and suburbs. Dolan’s base of support mirrored Romney’s, as he did best in counties that Romney carried. But on Tuesday the approach won him just 23 percent of the vote, a far cry from Romney’s 38 percent just a decade ago.

The news was even worse for Democrats. Republican turnout was more than double theirs, with nearly 1.1 million Ohioans choosing a GOP ballot compared with only 500,000 who voted in the Democratic primary. Overall turnout was nearly identical in 2018, but Republicans held only a 55-45 edge. Ohio voters do not register by party and can choose either ballot when they vote. I’m sure the big disparity was at least partly because of the more closely contested races on the GOP side, but it well could also be an indicator that independent voters are leaning Republican.

Something even more ominous for Democrats happened in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District. That seat has long been a Democratic bastion centered on the blue-collar city of Gary. In recent years, however, the region has shifted right along with similar areas nationwide, and President Biden only carried it by 8.5 percentage points. Democratic turnout in the 2018 primary trounced Republicans by some 30,000 votes. Tuesday night, however, the Democratic lead shrank to only 8,800 votes. Indiana also has no party registration, either. Count this as another early signal that independent voters could be flocking rightward.

It’s early in the cycle. One should never place too much stock in just a couple of elections. But the signs are unmistakable: stormy weather ahead for business Republicans and Team Blue, full speed ahead for the MAGA express.