The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.D. Vance, with a Trump boost, clinches Senate GOP primary in Ohio

Incumbent Mike DeWine was renominated in the state’s gubernatorial contest

J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” won the Republican primary for U.S. senate in Ohio on May 3. (Video: AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

J.D. Vance, an author and venture capitalist, won Tuesday’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Ohio, affirming the influence over GOP voters of former president Donald Trump, whose endorsement boosted Vance over rivals with similar views.

With most of the vote tallied, Vance was projected as the winner, according to the Associated Press, leading a field that included four other major candidates — all but one of whom sought to model themselves after Trump.

In once mainstream Ohio, moderates struggle against pro-Trump rivals

In November’s general election, Vance will face Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who easily won his party’s nomination over Morgan Harper, a former attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who ran to Ryan’s left. They’ll vie for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Rob Portman, a moderate Republican. GOP leaders have voiced confidence about holding the seat as they seek to win back control of the Senate.

Vance sought to unify his party in remarks at his victory event, saying the GOP stands for “working people all across the state.” He described his vision for America as a place where grit is rewarded, saying it is “the country for the people who take second chances” and “the country for people who get back on the horse.”

Vance’s primary win caps an extraordinary political transformation from staunch Trump critic to one of the former president’s most vocal champions.

His victory came in Tuesday’s marquee contest, as voters went to the polls in Ohio and Indiana to select nominees for the fall elections. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who surged in popularity at the start of the pandemic, defeated former Republican congressman James B. Renacci, the AP projected.

The result of the Ohio Senate primary represents a political victory for Trump in his first big test ahead of November’s midterm elections. The former president took a risk by backing Vance, and his support made a clear difference in the final stage of the race. Trump has waded into a number of high-stakes primaries leading up to November’s midterms, at times selecting underdog candidates or ones who are in tight races.

But Tuesday’s outcome was hardly a guarantee of future success for Trump. He has continued to promote false claims that the 2020 election was stolen as he campaigns for his preferred candidates, and he has backed candidates who agree with him in many cases, including in Ohio. That position has alienated some Republicans. This month will offer early glimpses of the value of his endorsement in races from Georgia to Nebraska to Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday night, Trump called Vance, 37, to congratulate him, according to an aide familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.

In early results, Vance led former state treasurer Josh Mandel and state Sen. Matt Dolan, who were running second and third, respectively.

In mid-April, Trump endorsed Vance, a Republican who once styled himself as a Never Trumper and discussed the possibility of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The late endorsement scrambled the packed primary in the final weeks, giving Vance an edge in a state Trump won twice.

The Radicalization of J.D. Vance

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, hailed Vance’s victory as a “YUGE win” and said on social media that “MAGA is alive and well and the GOP best take notice and finally understand where the people are.” Trump Jr. campaigned extensively for Vance, including appearing with him at a series of rallies.

But former president Trump muddied the waters over the weekend when he momentarily flubbed Vance’s name at a rally in Nebraska, referring to his chosen candidate as “J.D. Mandel.” The verbal miscue combined Vance’s first name with the last name of one of his chief rivals in the race.

Others pounced on the error, with the campaign of Ohio business executive Mike Gibbons, who finished well behind Vance on Tuesday, distributing a clip of Trump’s mistake with a statement saying, “Even after his endorsement, JD Vance is clearly irrelevant to President Trump.”

May: The month that will decide Trump’s kingmaker status

Vance’s victory positions him as a rising star in the Republican Party. His compelling personal story, outlined in his best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” has won him favor from influential figures. Because of his combination of intellectual heft with plain-spoken delivery, he is regarded in his party as one of the most talented GOP communicators.

But the attention also means he’ll face a new round of scrutiny over past comments. In a piece published by Vanity Fair, Vance painted a dire portrait of American institutions. “I tend to think that we should seize the institutions of the left,” Vance told the magazine. “And turn them against the left. We need like a de-Baathification program, a de-woke-ification program.”

Vance campaigned on a message that combined grievance with conservative populism. Illegal immigration became a signature issue, and he accused President Biden of “opening up the floodgates to the border” as a way to allow illegal drugs into the country and punish conservative voters. Biden administration officials have defended their approach to border, saying they are committed to a humane and orderly strategy.

“If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl,” Vance said in a recent interview. “It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish people who didn’t vote for him. And opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it.”

But nothing was more significant than his ability to earn Trump’s nod despite the many negative comments he made about the former president. Vance once called Trump “another opioid” who represented “easy escape from the pain” that the country faced. He had also labeled Trump as “noxious.”

The Post’s Annie Linskey explains what’s next for Trumpism after J.D. Vance won the U.S. Senate primary race in Ohio on May 3. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

The now-GOP nominee frequently appeared on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show during his run and relied on the financial backing of tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who once employed him. Thiel shoveled more than $10 million into a super PAC backing Vance’s race.

Vance had never before sought political office. He emerged from a crowded field that included Republicans with deeper and longer ties to the former president.

The outlier was Dolan, who, while supportive of many Trump policy positions, distinguished himself from the other top contenders by saying repeatedly that Trump should “move on” from the 2020 election. All of the other major candidates raised doubts about whether Biden fairly won the White House.

Dolan trailed in pre-primary public polls but was believed by some to have had a path to victory heading into Tuesday.

Mandel, in his third attempt to join the Senate, campaigned as a populist culture warrior. He railed against critical race theory, the intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism; the Hollywood elite; and what he says he views as overly liberal corporate culture. “Let’s celebrate Earth Day by building more pipelines,” he wrote on social media on April 22.

In his remarks Tuesday night, Vance extended an olive branch to Mandel, complimenting his military service and asking for the backing of his voters. “I hope to earn your support,” he said to Mandel’s voters. “I don’t expect it to be given.”

Also in the mix was former state Republican Party chair Jane Timken, who took on that job with Trump’s blessing and was well behind the leaders in polls. She ran with the endorsement of Portman but was running in a distant fifth place late Tuesday.

In the governor’s race, DeWine’s challenger Renacci posed a serious enough challenge that the Republican Governors Association spent more than $1 million to boost DeWine over him and farmer Joe Blystone. Former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, the AP also projected, defeating former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.

Down the ballot, the AP projected that Rep. Shontel M. Brown (D-Ohio) would defeat former state senator Nina Turner, a liberal candidate who lost to Brown in an August 2021 special election for the Cleveland-based 11th District. Biden has endorsed Brown.

Turner, who was criticized for blowing through her cash lead last year, raised less for the rematch and said in an interview that she focused on field organizing over ad buys. Last year’s race featured splashy visits for Turner from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose 2020 presidential campaign she co-chaired, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

While Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez supported Turner — the latter made a last-minute endorsement on Monday — they stayed away from the campaign trail in Ohio. But groups such the Democratic Majority for Israel spent big to help Brown — a sign, Turner said down the stretch, that the party establishment knew she might win if they did not intervene.

“I think people are more open to discussing how much they’re suffering, compared to last year,” Turner said. “We hear it at the doors. There was a lot of optimism, coming off four years of Trump. But I think some reality hit people.”

Republicans dodged an internal primary battle when two members of Congress in northeast Ohio opted to retire, rather than face Trump-endorsed challenger Max Miller in the newly drawn 7th District. Miller was projected to win the GOP nomination, according to the AP.

In the newly drawn, neighboring 13th District, Trump endorsed Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a Miss Ohio winner, over six rivals. The race was too close to call late Tuesday. State Rep. Emilia Sykes, the former Democratic leader in the state House, had no competition.

In both Ohio and Indiana, Republicans were also picking nominees in new districts that have trended their way and that new maps made less friendly to Democrats.

Several Ohio Republicans were vying to challenge Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the Toledo-based 9th District. State Sen. Theresa Gavarone came under scrutiny for criticizing Trump after the release in 2016 of the “Access Hollywood” tape on which he was recorded having a lewd conversation about women, and state Rep. Craig S. Riedel and Afghanistan war veteran J.R. Majewski ran as staunchly pro-Trump conservatives.