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The Trailer: How J.D. Vance sprinted to the head of the pack in Ohio

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In this edition: An Ohio GOP elegy, a Democratic debacle in New York, and a Hawaii pilot flies right out of Congress.

Don't judge, you wouldn't want to keep leaving Honolulu for Washington either. This is The Trailer.

BOARDMAN, Ohio — The crowd spilled out the door of the Mahoning County GOP's headquarters, where Republicans had packed in to see J.D. Vance. They laughed when he mocked the media's “magical fact-check wand,” and groaned when he condemned “Big Tech censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop.” They cheered when he talked about “bringing manufacturing jobs back from China,” shutting down the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over its failure to stop the opioid epidemic, and stopping “the Chinese from buying up single-family homes.”

They held their breath at one skeptic's question, based on an ad she'd seen: Did he really vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016?

“This is ridiculous and cynical,” said Vance. “I said, you know, maybe I'll write in my dog, or maybe I'll hold my nose and vote for Hillary.” It was a smear, he explained, from Republicans who wanted to stop him by pandering to former president Donald Trump's voters.

“One of the mistakes that a lot of these clowns have made in the primary is that they haven't learned anything of substance, about how to govern,” he added. “They just try to act like Trump.”

Over a long, bitter and expensive primary, Vance has been accused of the very same thing — a transformation, from the “Hillbilly Elegy” author who assured liberals that Trump was scamming the White working-class to a “fake news”-hating MAGA candidate. 

He's also secured Trump's endorsement and taken charge of the race, rising from single digits in the polls to a lead, right before the May 3 primary. The 37-year-old nationalist conservative, who had never run for office before, outcampaigned a field of experienced Republicans who never figured out what to do with him and spent crucial weeks — and millions of dollars — tearing each other apart.

“Do we send a Republican who's going to fight for the policies of the Trump administration, of what I think is a new generation of Republicans?” Vance said at an earlier campaign stop, near Columbus. “Or are we going to fight for the policies of 15, 20 years ago?” 

The effort to beat Vance began before he became a candidate. In April 2021, when the Republican was still planning his campaign, Ohio voters began to receive unsolicited text messages, from unknown numbers, about a candidate many had never heard of. “Never-Trumper JD Vance did NOT vote for Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton,” read one text; others linked to evidence of Vance calling Trump “noxious” and “leading the White working class to a very dark place.” (The accounts that sent those messages never responded to questions.) 

Vance launched his campaign three months later, recanting his criticism of Trump to any reporter — and there were many — who asked about it. By that time, former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel had been running for months, along with former state GOP chair Jane Timken and investment banker Mike Gibbons, all of whom had met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago to pitch him on endorsing their campaigns. They were soon joined by Bernie Moreno, a luxury car dealer who deleted his tweets saying that Biden won the 2020 election. None had criticized Trump the way Vance had, and none ever would.

“He kept his promises, he did great things for this country, and despite the fact that he didn’t endorse me for this race, I still believe that he did a great job as our president,” Gibbons said Saturday, during a visit to the Ohio College Republican Federation's convention. “I didn't have to erase any tweets or Facebook posts in order to cover up my disloyalty, because there never was any.” 

During Trump's presidency, Vance had undergone an ideological journey, which wasn't a mystery to his opponents. He had worked for Peter Thiel, the “New Right” billionaire who was going to spend tens of millions of dollars to help Vance and like-minded candidates. Vance's opponents knew that, too. They outspent him and outraised him, with Gibbons spending more than $10 million of his own money and Mandel spending money left over from an aborted 2018 campaign. 

Each candidate got traction when he or she went on the air, while outside groups tried to bury Vance. The Club for Growth and USA Freedom Fund launched ads in October, when Vance was polling in single digits, that portrayed the “real JD Vance” with more quotes from his “Hillbilly Elegy” tour: “I'm a Never Trump guy,” and “I can't stomach Trump” and “I loved Mitt Romney's anti-Trump screed.” And according to Vance, the ads hit the target.

“I think it did a fair amount of damage early on, because for a lot of voters, their introduction to me was Club for Growth advertising,” the candidate told The Trailer. “But at this point, people are paying attention. Most voters know where I was in 2016 and where I am in 2022. I think that the Club for Growth ads have definitely reached a point of diminishing returns.”

Crucially, the Club and its allies did not limit their attacks to Vance. When the TV buys began, the Club's own polling put Mandel way ahead of the field, with 35 percent of Republicans supporting him. That didn't last when his competitors started spending, and when no candidate pulled ahead, there was a frenzy of finger-pointing — a search for the ways each candidate had betrayed Trump.

Some of the allegations were thin. Timken had run the state GOP during Trump's presidency, holding back the blue wave that hit the rest of the Midwest in 2018. But weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, she'd given an interview to cleveland.com about the party's future, and didn't condemn Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R), the one member of Ohio's delegation who voted to impeach Trump. “I don’t know if I would have voted the way he did,” she said. “I think he’s spending some time explaining to folks his vote.” 

Within a month, Timken was calling on Gonzalez to resign, but her opponents now had a quote to hit her with. Gibbons would end up running ads that went after Timken on Gonzalez, while the Club spent to stop any candidate who looked to be threatening Mandel, attacking Timken over her family's company and its exports to Russia. 

“Obviously, it was disappointing,” Timken said in an interview this week, when asked about losing the Trump endorsement. “I was there. I was on the Trump bus. I was recruiting volunteers. I was getting the vote out.”

Moreno quit the race in February after a meeting with Trump. Another candidate, state Sen. Matt Dolan, entered the race in September and made no effort to win Trump over. At a dinner with Franklin County Republicans this week, Dolan said that his call for Trump to move on from 2020, at a debate where no other candidate agreed with him, was a “seminal moment” in the race. (Trump has insisted that the election was stolen, though audits have not found evidence of fraud that would have altered the outcome.)

“They don't have anything to run on,” Dolan said of the rest of the field, in an interview. “All they can run on is bashing each other.”

But Mandel and Gibbons couldn't pass the Trump loyalty test either. It changed, and got harder, depending on who had the momentum — Mandel had endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) over Trump in 2016, and Gibbons had gone to a Rubio fundraiser, saying Mandel had urged him to do so. 

The result was a muddle, with no candidate able to claim they'd been MAGA from the beginning. When Trump came to Delaware County to campaign with Vance on Saturday, Gibbons parked his campus bus outside the fairground to meet voters, while the former president told his crowd that Vance had “said some bad [expletive]” about him, but “every one of the others did also.” Plenty of Ohio Republicans had; Trump had lost the state's 2016 primary to then-Gov. John Kasich. True Trump loyalty was a challenge most of the voters had failed, too.

“I was a Cruz person. I originally was worried about Trump. I wasn't sure he was a Republican,” said Cathy Pultz, 63, after talking with Timken at a campaign stop Wednesday. “So, I voted for Kasich in the primary, to slow Trump down. And now I'm horrified that I did it, because I love Trump, and I've been incredibly disappointed at how Kasich acted.”

By the start of April, Vance had raised less than $3 million for his own campaign, relying on the Thiel PAC for air cover. He took risks when the candidates met for televised forums, like his demand that Senate Republicans refuse to increase the debt limit unless the Biden administration's vaccine mandate was halted. He benefited from confounding decisions by his rivals, most notably Mandel, whose decision to stand up and physically confront Gibbons turned into a two-week ad war — with Mandel accusing Gibbons of deriding his military service, and Gibbons accurately pointing out that he'd done no such thing.

Vance's opponents also misread the impact of his take on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Dolan and Timken repeatedly went after Vance for his first reactions — saying before the invasion that he didn't “care” what happened, and saying afterward that the United States had funded a “failed” Ukrainian military. But Vance was in sync with Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon and other conservatives whom GOP primary voters took seriously. As the issue faded from front pages, Vance turned it on the media, saying that the infotainment elites spent “20 minutes talking about Ukraine for every minute they talk about inflation,” yet more evidence that an outsider needed to crash that system.

“Regardless of whether you get into the weeds of what's going on in Ukraine or what's going on in Russia, it is not in our vital national security interest,” Vance said Wednesday, adding that the invasion wasn't among the top 10 issues facing America. “I think it's disgusting that for four years Donald Trump could not get $4 billion out of the Republican Congress to build a wall at the southern border — and meanwhile, Joe Biden got $14 billion in a week to send to Ukraine.” (Congress approved $14 billion in Ukraine aid on March 10, following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.) 

That was a compelling answer to Brian Michael, 51, who had asked Vance about Ukraine — and the rumors he'd heard that American political corruption had led to the conflict. “I think that the single country that donated the most money to the Clinton Global Initiative was Ukraine,” said Vance, adding that he'd “spent a fair amount of time” on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show to talk about the war. (A Ukrainian multimillionaire was a large donor to the foundation, but not the largest.)

The rest of the GOP candidates hadn't gotten that exposure. They hadn't taken a risk, and said that America had no strategic interest in Ukraine — because they disagreed. The result was Trump supporting Vance, and not them. For Gibbons, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, it was a familiar feeling. He'd entered the race early, only to lose it when Trump urged another candidate to abandon his race for governor and run for U.S. Senate instead, with his endorsement.

“He actually apologized for the last one. But then he did it again,” Gibbons said, with a laugh and a shrug. “Peter Thiel gave JD Vance $13.5 million through his PAC. That's the kind of guy Donald Trump wants to get close to. So, I get it. I just hope he doesn't get his way.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

Reading list

“Trump’s Georgia allies are running on 2020 grievance. It may not work,” by Matthew Brown, Amy Gardner and Josh Dawsey

The waning of David Perdue.

“It's Trump vs. Cruz in Ohio and Pa. Senate races,” by Burgess Everett

The accidental grudge match.

“How McCarthy sought to contain the damage from leaked Jan. 6 audio,” by Josh Dawsey, Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis

Keeping the GOP conference on the leader's side.

“Why big money is pouring into a safe Democratic seat in North Carolina,” by Daniel Marans

What a six-figure AIPAC buy can do.

“Hochul wants to replace Brian Benjamin on the ballot. Will the Legislature let her?” by Rebecca C. Lewis

A self-created problem, with no easy fix.

Redistricting

Call it Andrew Cuomo’s revenge. Last summer, right before a state investigation that found he sexually harassed 11 women would drive him from power, Cuomo pushed the Democratic legislature in Albany to confirm Madeline Singas to the state court of appeals. On Wednesday, Singas cast the deciding vote to throw out the new congressional and state Senate maps passed this year — particularly ironic, because it was the state Senate that gave her a 14-year term.

There were only upsides for Republicans. One: The court suggested that the state, which had federal primaries in June and state primaries in September until Democrats seeking change unified them, could split them again — statewide races in June, district-by-district races in August. Two: The Democratic map would have created just four safe seats for Republicans, who currently hold eight of them. Jonathan Cervas, a fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s politics institute, has already been selected as a special master to draw new maps, and neither Democrats nor Republicans expect him to draw the sort of lines that minimized GOP power.

“We shouldn’t have a single individual that’s been unelected supplant his will for the will of the elected representatives of the state,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in an interview with NY1.

Democrats didn’t see it coming. In 2014, voters added language to the state Constitution that prohibited partisan gerrymanders. But language like that in Ohio was ignored by most Republican justices on the Supreme Court; the New York court was composed of Democratic opponents; and the court had not struck down a map in generations. Up next: whether Democrats in Albany will try to re-merge the primaries, and what dozens of candidates will end up doing in districts where they'll have just six months, or less, before they face their voters.

Ad watch

Club for Growth Action, “Fake.” Trump endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) over Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), but like a lot of candidates who didn’t get the ex-president’s support, McKinley has been running ads that show him and Trump together. The problem, according to the Club for Growth: McKinley used a photo illustration that merged two pictures together and made it look like he was at a Trump rally. “McKinley faked it to trick you,” says a narrator. “That’s wrong.” 

Shapiro for Pennsylvania, “Banana Split.” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has no competition for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Republicans are burning through their funds ahead of a tight May 17 primary, with no clear favorite. So Shapiro started spending money on ads this month, starting with a 60-second bio spot, with 30 seconds about his personal life (“I married my high school sweetheart”) and 30 seconds about his record. That section emphasizes tax cuts and lawsuits against pedophiles and opioid manufacturers — no mention of his party or anything particularly liberal. 

Frix for Congress, “He Backs the Blue.” Oklahoma state Rep. Avery Frix made some national news when he sponsored a bill to rename a highway after Trump. That’s not mentioned in this spot, which portrays a police officer stopping Frix and having a friendly conversation about a bill that passed, to raise police officers’ pay. But they spend a bit more time talking about Trump. “He’s the best president of my lifetime,” says Frix. “Mine too,” says the officer, “and I’ve been around a bit longer than you.”

Riedel for Ohio, “What’s Worse.” Another Republican primary, another accusation of disloyalty to Trump. State Rep. Craig Riedel, whose campaign logo and slogan (“Make Ohio Great Again”) are patterned after Trump’s, lumps in state Sen. Theresa Gavarone with anti-Trump Republicans as a narrator says voters need a congressman who’ll “stand with President Trump all, not just some of the time.” Her offense? It’s not mentioned in the ad, but in 2016, she said that she was “extremely disappointed and outraged” by the “Access Hollywood” tape.

America Proud PAC, “Bryan Smith.” This spot supporting a conservative challenger to Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has stronger material than Riedel — Simpson not only condemned Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape, he said that he couldn’t vote for him. That’s the meat of this ad, which also condemns Simpson for supporting the “Jan. 6 witch hunt” by voting for the bipartisan committee plan killed by Senate Republicans.

Team Herschel, “Simple Plan.” National Republicans made peace with Herschel Walker, after an endorsement from Trump and early polling suggested that no other Republican could take the U.S. Senate nomination away from him in Georgia. His first spot not only introduces him, but spins one of the concerns the GOP had about him — his struggle with dissociative identity disorder. “He spent more than a decade sharing his story, raising awareness and offering help to those in need,” says a narrator.

Poll watch

“In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, will you vote for…” (Fox News, April 20-24, 906 Ohio GOP voters)

J.D. Vance: 23% (+12 since March)
Josh Mandel: 18% (-2)
Mike Gibbons: 13% (-9)
Matt Dolan: 11% (+4)
Jane Timken: 6% (-3)
Undecided: 25% (+1)

Behold, the power of a Trump endorsement — and the weakness of the campaigns that couldn't get it. This is the first public poll in a year-long race to put Vance on top, and it also captures a surge in his personal favorability. (Trump will want credit, but Vance went on the air with his own positive ads between the last poll and this one.) Vance is now the best-liked candidate among Republican voters, followed by Dolan, with Timken, again, dead last. Earned media has played a role here, too. While Dolan has spent more than Vance on advertising, comparable to the spending by Vance himself and the Peter Thiel-funded Protect Ohio Values PAC, 45 percent of voters still don't know who he is. Just 25 percent don't yet have an opinion of Vance.

“In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, will you vote for…” (Marquette Law School, April 19-24, 363 likely Wisconsin Democratic voters)

Mandela Barnes: 19% (-4 since February) 
Alex Lasry: 16% (+3)
Sarah Godlewski: 7% (+4)
Tom Nelson: 5% (-)
Won't vote in this primary: 3% (-)
Don't know: 48% (-)

Barnes, who was elected as Wisconsin's first Black lieutenant governor in 2018, had more national exposure than any other Democrat running for U.S. Senate when he launched his campaign last year. But he didn't clear the field, and went on the air after Godlewski and Lasry were already running ads. (Both kick-started their campaigns with personal wealth, and Lasry's family owns the Milwaukee Bucks.) Less than four months before the primary, 57 percent of Democrats have no opinion of Barnes, 62 percent have no opinion of Lasry, and 71 percent have no opinion of Godlewski. Nelson, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president and has tried to own the left lane of the primary, is even less known among Democratic voters. Sen. Ron Johnson's (R-Wis.) favorable rating in the same poll is underwater, but Democrats don't have much clarity on who'll face him.

In the states

Hawaii. After just one term, Rep. Kaiali'i Kahele (D-Hawaii) will leave Congress to run for governor, becoming the 31st Democrat to pack it in ahead of the 2022 midterm election. 

Kahele, who was a state legislator and commercial airline pilot when he challenged then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, romped to an easy 2020 election after Gabbard abandoned her bid as she ran for president. But as first reported by Hawaii Civil Beat, just 17 days ago, Kahele took full advantage of pandemic-friendly proxy voting rules, rarely returning to Washington — casting five votes in person this year, and skipping what would have been his last State of the Union address.

That story shone a bright light on Kahele's absences, and a deal that let him continue flying at a reduced salary. On Wednesday, former state Sen. Jill Tokuda abandoned a bid for lieutenant governor to file for Kahele's 2nd Congressional District, which backed President Biden by 30 points in 2020 and hasn't been contested seriously by Republicans in years.

Both Kahele's replacement and the nominees for governor will be picked in Aug. 13 primaries, and the congressman will join a race that includes a former mayor of Honolulu, one of the state's former first ladies and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who dominated polling of the race after his role in the state's pandemic response.

North Carolina. The state Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus has pulled its support for state Sen. Valerie Foushee, after she got more than $160,000 in bundled donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

“They were very explicit in saying that she is a very strongly pro-AIPAC candidate, and AIPAC supports a large number of Republicans who tried to overturn the 2020 election,” said Ryan Jenkins, in an interview with the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel. “That’s a slap in the face to the Constitution, democracy, freedom, liberty.”

Colorado. Republican state Rep. David Williams lost his legal fight to appear on the ballot with a nickname that might appeal to MAGA voters — “Let’s Go Brandon.” He told KUSA that he’d appeal the ruling, saying that the judge, a Democratic appointee, “put his thumb on the scale,” and adding that he couldn’t get a fair shake from Secretary of State Jena Griswold, also a Democrat.

“The Colorado Supreme Court should do its job and hear this appeal because the corrupt [secretary of state] shouldn’t be allowed to violate the rule of law,” he explained.

Q&A

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Four of the Republicans running for U.S. Senate went to great lengths to win Donald Trump’s endorsement. Dolan didn't. The 57-year-old state senator from Cleveland’s outskirts said from the start that Trump had lost the 2020 election and should move on, wooing the minority of GOP voters — potentially enough to win, in a crowded race — who agreed with that.

Dolan didn't run against Trump, just against his obsession with the 2020 election, telling voters that he was focused on “today's crisis that the Biden administration is putting our country through.” Dolan talked with The Trailer on Monday, after holding at an event at a Ukrainian church in Cleveland, and before heading to the party dinner in Columbus.

The Trailer: Can you tell me why you started the day meeting with Ukrainian Americans?

Matt Dolan: I've been working with Ukrainian local officials for a long time, even before the invasion of a sovereign Ukraine. This morning was about getting Ukrainian groups together to learn about what's happening on the ground. What are they hearing? Can the United States do more? 

We’ve had J.D. Vance say he that he couldn't care less about what happens in Ukraine. To the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who live in the northeast Ohio area, that's extremely disconcerting. So I think they were very, very happy that this meeting was scheduled. They know that their voice is being heard. We need to continue to provide humanitarian aid. We need to provide the correct military aid, but not for boots on the ground — and they don't want boots on the ground. There is genuine concern and maybe even fear that J.D. could win this election. Putin must just be thrilled that J.D. Vance might be a U.S. senator.

TT: How did the Trump endorsement change the race, for you?

MD: They've run their entire campaigns to get that endorsement. I've run my entire campaign on issues that matter to Ohio, showing that I have the conservative experience and results to get things done. Look, Republicans controlled everything in 2017, and yet we couldn't get border security into law. President Trump had to do it by executive order. So I think Ohioans are beginning to understand that if you don't send somebody who's willing to go and execute on the values and principles of being a Republican, we end up with Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi. 

TT: When I'm covering other candidates, and somebody mentions Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. Mike DeWine, they frequently get booed. Isn't there a lot of anti-establishment sentiment for you to get past? 

Matt Dolan: I've seen less and less of that. How they feel about DeWine, how they feel about Portman … that was more of a fall issue, because the election wasn't real to people yet. But it's real now. I think that voters are all laser-focused: Okay, which one of these candidates is best to go and fight for Ohio? And I think you're going to see that they're going to choose me. The other candidates don't have anything to run on. All they can run on is bashing each other.

I think that they want to replace Rob Portman with somebody who's going to go to Washington and get and achieve conservative results. When I point out that Republicans controlled everything, spent more time pointing fingers at each other than executing on our values, then controlled nothing — I think that's the lightbulb goes off for people.

TT: Is it actually an asset to be an elected official right now? Republican voters don't seem very happy with their leadership.

MD: Until they meet me, and we start talking about things I’ve done in Ohio to impact the quality of their life. I've had my fingerprints over all of that. They start understanding that taxes just don't cut themselves; we had to do it. We cut regulations. I passed 13 pro-life bills to reduce abortion. 

TT: Based on how the other candidates were running, it looked like immigration and tech censorship were bigger issues than what the legislature was doing. Were they?

MD: I've known that all along, because I’ve been talking to voters. Border security and economic security have been the two top issues from the day I got elected to the state Senate. I’ve talked with law enforcement throughout the state and they're seeing the impact of open borders right here in Ohio — we had record overdose deaths in 2021. My opponents are coming late to the issues because they've been focused on something else. 

So, my first ad was about China. My second was about border security, my third was about neighborhood security and the fourth ad was about financial security. On Big Tech, it's interesting: I'm the only one that's been saying that we don't need the federal government to get in and start over-regulating. We need to let the marketplace work. Elon Musk is buying Twitter, Truth Social is being formed. The individual can exercise their right by leaving the social network. We need to get rid of immunity, if they're going to act like a publisher, and we need to make sure that individuals can own all their information, not the Big Tech company. But let's be strategic. Let's let the marketplace figured this out.

TT: How much did it hurt your campaign that the Cleveland Indians changed their name to the Guardians? Vance criticized you for that, Trump criticized you for that — linking you to “wokeness.” 

MD: I’ve said it wasn't ideal, but it was a family decision that was made. As I traverse the state, it really only comes up when the media or my opponents bring it up. I don't work with the Guardians on a day-to-day basis. I'm part of the family that owns it. And we've had very, very spirited discussions about what we should do with the team. That’s an issue where my family decided to go in a direction, and I'm going to stick with my family.

Countdown

… five days until primaries in Indiana and Ohio
… 12 days until primaries in Nebraska and West Virginia
… 19 days until primaries in Kentucky, Oregon, North Carolina and Pennsylvania
… 26 days until Texas runoffs and the special primary in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District
… 44 days until the special House primary in Alaska
… 61 days until the special election in Nebraska's 1st Congressional District
… 77 days until the special election in Texas's 34th Congressional District
… 188 days until the midterm elections

2022 Election Calendar

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