CINCINNATI — Buoyed by former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, J.D. Vance prevailed in Ohio’s competitive Republican Senate primary Tuesday and will face off in November against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, NBC News projects.
In the gubernatorial contest, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine secured the nomination in his bid for re-election, NBC News projects, while former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley won the Democratic nod.
Vance, the author of bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy,” came out on top of a hotly contested five-way primary that saw more than $70 million spent on the airwaves as several candidates claimed to be only true pro-Trump conservative in the race.
Trump’s endorsement of Vance over former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and others last month upended a contest that had revolved around a very public audition for his support. It came 10 days after early voting began and ballots cast on Election Day skewed more heavily for Vance than those cast during early balloting.
The former president is sure to trumpet the victory in Ohio’s primary, only the second of the year, which was widely seen as offering an early test of Trump’s influence and the overall mood of the electorate ahead of November’s midterm elections.
DeWine — once popular with voters in both parties because of decisive early leadership during the Covid pandemic — was fighting for renomination against several challengers running to his right. Meanwhile, Whaley defeated former Cincinnati mayor John Cranley.
Republicans are favored in both statewide contests in November’s general election as Ohio has shifted deeper into the GOP column in recent years.
A rematch between Rep. Shontel Brown and former state Sen. Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District also has captured attention. The Democrats clashed last year in a bitter special election that dwelt on Turner’s past criticisms of President Joe Biden, whom she worked against as a co-chair and prominent surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 White House campaign.
But it’s the GOP Senate primary that has become a closely watched barometer of national politics.
Vance, a best-selling author and venture capitalist who had no political roots in Ohio, spent the early days of his campaign apologizing for his extensive criticism of Trump in 2016. And Trump — drawn to the idea of elevating a convert, particularly one who shared his populist and nationalist instincts — shrugged off the “not so great things” that Vance had said. It didn’t hurt that Vance had a champion in Peter Thiel, the Trump-friendly tech entrepreneur who has poured more than $13 million into a pro-Vance super PAC.
Trump’s endorsement helped Vance, whose campaign was only beginning to advertise on TV and attract institutional support in Ohio, quickly climb to the top of the polls. But three others who had presented themselves as the purest pro-Trump candidates — Mandel, former state party leader Jane Timken and investment banker Mike Gibbons — remained in the race.
Meanwhile, polls over the last week showed state Sen. Matt Dolan, who ran his campaign as an antidote to Trump’s personality-driven politics and didn’t court the former president’s endorsement, rising. Vance spent the closing days swinging at Mandel and Dolan.
Mandel, twice elected to statewide office and a losing Senate candidate in 2012, was the early GOP front-runner based largely on name-recognition. The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that had been close with Trump, backed his campaign through a super PAC that spent millions of dollars attacking other candidates, including Vance, for his past criticisms of Trump.
Other candidates showed flashes of promise. Timken came close to landing Trump’s early endorsement, given that he had handpicked her to run the state party and, with her guidance, won Ohio by 8 points in 2020. But Timken’s pitch was complicated by kind words she had for Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, in an interview with Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer shortly after Gonzalez was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. Trump’s advisers encouraged him to wait and see how the field developed.
Timken earned Portman’s endorsement and hired former Trump advisers like Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski, but none of it was enough to impress the former president. And although Timken put some of her own money into the campaign, it was no match for other self-funders and super PACs playing in the race.
Gibbons, for example, briefly bought himself front-runner status. The more than $16 million he loaned his campaign helped pay for a crush of TV ads that boosted his name-recognition and elevated him into a polling tie with Mandel. But Gibbons’ unpolished speaking style — he is not, he and his advisers would constantly remind reporters, a politician — hurt him in the early debates, details of which allies to other candidates gleefully reported back to Trump. And a near-physical confrontation instigated by Mandel at their first debate ultimately reflected poorly on both candidates.
Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, invested more than $10 million of his money, running ads that promoted a conservative policy agenda without promoting Trump. He also was the only primary hopeful to unequivocally say the 2020 presidential election was not stolen from Trump. But while Dolan’s approach caught the former president’s attention — twice Trump issued statements blasting the baseball team for changing its name from Indians to Guardians — he was never attacked heavily in TV ads.
Overall, the Republican Senate primary is the most expensive race, in terms of advertising, so far in 2022. As of Tuesday, the GOP candidates and the outside groups supporting them had spent a combined $70 million, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.
Henry J. Gomez reported from Cincinnati. Alex Seitz-Wald reported from Washington.