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Ohio’s Wild Primary Comes to a Close
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Ohio’s Wild Primary Comes to a Close

Donald Trump’s endorsement and late bumps in the polls turned the race upside down in its final weeks.

Two days before Ohio’s Senate primary, former President Donald Trump had the stage at a rally in Greenwood, Nebraska. He took a moment to run through his picks not just in the Cornhusker State—he’s supporting businessman Charles Herbster in the gubernatorial contest—but in other important contests around the country.

“You know, we’ve endorsed Dr. Oz,” a reference to celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz’s bid for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat.

Then he moved to Ohio. And appeared to confuse who he’d endorsed: “We’ve endorsed—J.P., right? J.D. Mandel, and he’s doing great. They’re all doing good. They’re all doing good. And let’s see what happens.”

Trump seemed to be confusing venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance with former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. In fairness to Trump, the candidates might well blend together after the months they have spent courting his favor. 

In addition to Vance and Mandel, the seven-way GOP primary consists of state Sen. Matt Dolan, businessman Mike Gibbons, former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, and businessmen Neil Patel and Mark Pukita. Patel and Pukita have struggled to gain purchase in the polls.

On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep Tim Ryan is expected to easily capture the primary over opponents attorney Morgan Harper and businesswoman Traci Johnson.

It’s been an eye-poppingly expensive race. According to advertising-tracking firm Medium Buying, the candidates have spent or reserved more than $65.67 million in advertising on television, cable, and radio. That figure doesn’t include social media or digital advertising.

Gibbons, who has self-funded his campaign to the tune of $17 million, and who briefly reached the top of the polls in April, jumped on Trump’s rally gaffe.

“Even after his endorsement, JD Vance is clearly irrelevant to President Trump, so much so he botched Vance’s name at his rally today in Nebraska. Quite the ringing endorsement, eh?” Gibbons said in an email to supporters. “You really can’t blame Trump. No one knows who the real JD Vance is, as his views change faster than the weather in Ohio.”

Gibbons and the other leading candidates for months have battled in a sort of “Trump primary,” jockeying for a leading edge.

The almost singular focus on Trump makes sense in light of Ohio’s political trends these last few years. It’s moved away from its reputation as a bellwether swing state: Barack Obama won it by 4 percent in 2008, then 1.9 in 2012. Trump captured the state by 8.1 percentage points in 2016 and 2020 over his opponents. The power of incumbency and a somewhat moderate approach to politics has perhaps helped Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown hold onto his seat during the interim midterm elections.

But on April 15, Trump shook up the GOP race by announcing his endorsement of Vance. A week later, Vance appeared alongside the former president at a Delaware County rally.

For Vance, the payoff of Trump’s endorsement was soon evident. An April 26 Fox News survey showed his support had doubled from the month prior: 23 percent of Republican primary voters said they would back Vance, with the other leading candidates trailing at 18 (Mandel), 13 (Gibbons), 11 (Dolan), and 4 (Timken) percentage points respectively.

But Vance’s lead in the polls never quite got comfortable—the 5-percent edge in the Fox Poll were within the margin of error. That poll also found that the largest block of primary voters, 25 percent, said they were undecided. And half who had landed on a pick said they could see their mind changing.

Still, Vance’s narrow lead appears to have held, according to two polls released yesterday, on the eve of the primary. An Emerson poll conducted last Thursday and Friday showed a tight race, with Vance ahead at 24 percent, Mandel at 22 percent, and Dolan at 18 percent. And in a Trafalgar survey conducted over the weekend, Vance was at 26 percent compared to Dolan’s 22 percent and Mandel’s 21 percent. 

“Trump’s endorsement was a game changer for Vance: 63% of his supporters say the former president’s endorsement makes them more likely to support his candidacy,” Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling, said. “Among those who say Trump’s endorsement makes them less likely to support a candidate, Dolan holds the majority, 56%, of support.”

Vance has made the most of the endorsement, highlighting it on social media, in advertising, and while on the campaign trail. He’s also called upon a bevy of MAGA surrogates to campaign for him, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green, plus Republican radio show host Charlie Kirk.

In the days since the endorsement, the candidates who missed out on Trump’s endorsement have tried to find their footing without it.

At least, all but one.

“This race is not about Trump,” state Sen. Matt Dolan told a roomful of about 50 voters at Charlie’s, a family-owned, Greek-American restaurant in Maumee, Ohio, in mid-April.

Unlike any other roomful of Republican-leaning Ohio voters, the crowd did not erupt into boos at the words. Instead, Dolan’s words drew some nods from the audience, a mix of independents and Republicans, both undecided voters and hard-core supporters. And all were open to the idea that the race for the state’s open Senate seat was, in fact, about Ohio more than the former occupant of the White House.

This was just four days before Trump announced his endorsement, but Dolan never ran as a candidate looking to get it. The ex-president attacked Dolan the same day he announced his candidacy. Instead, Dolan has run the race primarily focusing on kitchen table issues like inflation, gas prices, restoring the strength of the manufacturing sector, and energy policy. In recent days, he’s pulled an endorsement from former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

Dolan has also seen a recent sharp uptick—both in internet searches and in the polls. He got one bump days after Trump’s endorsement of Vance in mid-April and looks to have gotten another over the weekend before the primary. Emerson’s poll found him in third place at 18 percent (Vance led the poll at 24 percent.) An April-May survey from the Trafalgar Group placed Dolan in second, at 22 percent to Vance’s 26 percent. An April 26 poll from a Democratic polling firm in Texas actually placed Dolan in first, this time again at 18 percent, with Vance one percentage point shy of him.

This comes after trailing in third or fourth place for much of the race.

The threat of the Dolan bump was evidently perceived as real enough for Trump to send a statement calling Dolan “not fit to serve in the United States Senate” last week. Vance and some of his surrogates also took parting shots at Dolan Monday with Vance echoing a Trump attack by criticizing Dolan for changing the name of the Cleveland Indians baseball team to the Cleveland Guardians. (Dolan, whose family owns the Guardians, has said he had nothing to do with that decision.)

“We’re getting a lot of undecideds to come for us, I think we’re getting some people leaving some other candidates,” Dolan told Fox News at a Monday Ottawa County Republican Women’s Club event. 

Meanwhile, the other candidates have scrambled to vary their messages in their final pitches to voters. 

Gibbons, who traveled on a bus tour to all 88 Ohio counties, has been leaning on his personal connections with voters and told Fox he believes his supporters from all over the state will come through and has criticized Trump’s choice of Vance. “He took that guy that was single digits and made him competitive,” he said.

Other candidates have taken the tactic of simply mentioning Trump less. At a Friday rally in Cleveland, appearing alongside Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, Mandel barely mentioned the former president and instead leaned into culture war issues. 

Cruz, meanwhile, couldn’t help taking a shot at the other candidates: “Every candidate says, ‘I love Donald Trump. No, no, no–I love Donald Trump more. No, no, no–I have Donald Trump tattooed on my rear end!’”

Mandel has also stumped with MAGA-favorite and former U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. And on Mandel’s behalf, the conservative super PAC Club for Growth also saturated the airwaves with attack ads going after Vance and reminding voters of his past negative statements about Trump in recent days.

Former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken has mobilized an army of volunteers to knock on doors and has been calling voters herself. She also has spent more time highlighting her endorsement from retiring Sen. Rob Portman, appearing with him at events over the weekend. Her recent tweets have barely mentioned Trump. “This race is about who can fight for Ohio families, who can deliver conservative solutions,” she tweeted

One of the factors making it difficult to pin down which way the chips will fall has been the number of voters self-reporting as undecided in polls. 

One voter, Marvin Dabish, a city council member for the city of Oregon, told The Dispatch over the weekend, “I still really don’t know yet—but I like Dolan over all the candidates.” He’s been unimpressed with the way the other candidates focused so much on Trump: “I think they’re just using [Trump’s] name thinking that it’s gonna help them get elected.”

Another Republican voter told The Dispatch he’s heard from a dozen conservative Republicans who decided to support Vance.

“I think the boost in the polls is real. Last week I heard from a dozen people who are supporting Dolan,” he said. “Because J.D. is a clown. He’ll get elected and we’ll never hear from him. He’ll be on Fox News and Tucker and talking to Don Jr.”

In a matter of hours, just how much the Trump effect will help—or hurt—in the Senate primary will become clear.

“It appears the Trump endorsement helped Dolan and it also helped Vance,” Chris Joseph, chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, told The Dispatch

Still, longtime political watchers in the Buckeye State didn’t want to make predictions Monday. “Who knows? No one knows,” Joseph said. “No one knows.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.