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A Trump Bump for Vance


— It’s hard to quantify exactly what Donald Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance was worth in the Ohio GOP Senate primary, but Vance’s victory likely will reaffirm the belief among Republicans that Trump’s endorsement is very much worth having.

— Both the Ohio gubernatorial and Senate races remain rated Likely Republican for the general election.

The Vance victory

What is a Donald Trump endorsement worth to a Republican candidate in a major race? To J.D. Vance, the author and newly-minted Republican Senate nominee in Ohio, it probably was the difference between winning and not winning, although the effect is hard to quantify with the limited information we have.

Fabrizio, Lee & Associates, a respected Republican firm polling for a pro-Vance outside group, released a poll in March showing Vance tied at 18% with businessman Mike Gibbons and former state Treasurer Josh Mandel in the primary. This was before the Trump endorsement. A few days after the endorsement (mid-April), the firm put out another poll, showing Vance up to 25% and leading. A week later, the firm had Vance up to 31%, almost identical to the 32% he received. Using this set of polls, you could argue that the Trump endorsement may have been worth something like a dozen points.

Trafalgar, a Republican pollster that was not polling for a specific campaign, had Vance at about 15% in 2 polls the firm released in December and February. They released a third, in April, right before Trump backed Vance. He was at 23% in that poll, 5 points behind Mandel. Trafalgar’s final poll, which came out a few days ago, pegged Vance at 26%, a bit under his final tally, but the poll also identified that Mandel and the least-Trumpy candidate in the field, state Sen. Matt Dolan, would finish closely-bunched for second and third. Trafalgar suggests that Vance was moving up right prior to the Trump endorsement — so perhaps it was only worth something less than double digits. The Fox News poll, meanwhile, had Vance at just 11% in early March but at 23% after the endorsement.

So what’s the value of a Trump endorsement? Well, the former president doesn’t have the power to simply direct a Republican electorate to do whatever he wants (if he did, he would never be on the losing side of an intraparty race, but he has been and will be). But there are reasons why Republican candidates so vigorously pursue Trump’s affections — it’s because they believe a Trump endorsement is important in a GOP primary. Certainly what happened with Vance will reinforce that belief. We’ll see how Trump’s candidates do in some upcoming races, like the Pennsylvania Senate primary coming up in a couple of weeks, where Trump backed television doctor Mehmet Oz (R) in another competitive race.

Map 1 gives the breakdown of the overall Ohio primary result, as well as a map of the second-place finisher in each county.

Map 1: 2022 Ohio Senate Republican primary

Vance, while winning by about 8 points, carried all but 14 of the state’s 88 counties, and took everything south of Columbus. His shares tended to be highest in post-industrial/Appalachian counties that follow the Ohio River on the state’s eastern border — this is an area that has moved heavily to Republicans in general elections over the last decade.

Dolan, though he finished a narrow third behind Mandel, was clearly the most “urban” candidate. Dolan took pluralities in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Franklin County (Columbus), as well as Geauga County, a suburb of the former. Almost every county where Dolan placed second was in the orbit of a metro area. Mandel, aside from carrying about a dozen relatively less populated counties, seemed to be the solid second choice of rural voters.

One dynamic that seemed to materialize last night was the divergence between the early and the Election Day vote. At one point, Dolan was up in 5 of the 6 counties that bordered Cuyahoga. But as the much larger Election Day vote was tallied, Dolan’s Cleveland firewall fell apart, and Vance limited him to only Geauga County. Still, Dolan carried his home area: he won his home city of Chagrin Falls with 62% — he also carried his state Senate district, a band suburbs within Cuyahoga County, with a 37% plurality. But Vance was competitive enough in the major metros (and he perhaps got regional boost of his own in the Cincinnati area, where he is from and where he carried every county) to pull out a comfortable plurality.

With this primary victory, Vance now moves to a general election against Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), who is running an economically populist campaign modeled after those of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The Vance-Ryan contest will be defined by messaging that tries to out “anti-elite” the other. But the political trends in Ohio and environment are definitely in favor of Vance, despite making a lot of inflammatory comments in his primary and highlighting his support from 2 of the most outlandish Republicans in Washington, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14) and Matt Gaetz (R, FL-1). But we don’t think Vance is some sort of tremendously weak or damaged candidate, the kind of Republican that has blown winnable races for the party in the past. He’s certainly no Roy Moore (the disastrous Alabama Senate candidate from a few years ago), for instance, and he may have been a better choice for Republicans in this race than, say, Mandel, who has accumulated baggage and enemies from his time in state government and previous runs for office. Our rating in the Ohio Senate race remains Likely Republican.

That Likely Republican rating also applies to the gubernatorial race, where Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH), as expected, benefited from split opposition, cruising to victory over, most notably, former Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16) and farmer Joe Blystone (R), who developed something of a cult following in rural Ohio over the course of his campaign. The presence of Blystone never allowed the bigger name, Renacci, to get the traction he needed, and Renacci did nothing to assuage concerns about his strength as a statewide candidate (he ran a somewhat listless challenge against Brown in 2018). DeWine did only receive about 48% of the vote, so he could have been vulnerable against a stronger opponent in a two-way race.

There were some similarities between last night’s gubernatorial result and the 2016 GOP presidential primary. Then-Gov. John Kasich, who positioned himself as a moderate Republican, carried his home state with a 47% plurality (close to DeWine’s 48%), to then-candidate Trump’s 36%. The light blue counties on Map 1 gave Kasich and DeWine pluralities, while they claimed majorities in the dark blue ones.

Map 2: 2016 and 2022 Republican primaries in Ohio

Both Kasich and DeWine ran up the score in urban Ohio. In fact, the state’s 3 most populated counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton, each outlined in a thicker black border) collectively gave both candidates just over 57% of the vote. Perhaps speaking to the less urban character of Republican primaries these days, that trio went from making up 22% of the statewide electorate down to 18% last night. Possibly because he was much better funded than his opposition, DeWine made up for that slippage by performing better than Kasich in other metros — the Youngstown area in particular, which gave Trump and DeWine both majorities, caught our attention. Relatedly, if those 3 most urban counties were still making up over 20% of the total vote, it seems likely Dolan would have, at least, beat out Mandel for second place in the Senate primary.

Democrats nominated former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley for governor. She trounced former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in a victory so complete that she even won Hamilton County, where Cranley’s home base of Cincinnati is located. Whaley has long been seen as a potential rising star in an Ohio Democratic Party that is desperate for reinvigoration. Part of why DeWine had problems in his primary was because some Republicans didn’t like his aggressive, early moves against Covid. But those same actions likely endeared him to some Democrats, and it’s easy to imagine him getting some crossover support in the general election as the incumbent. For that reason, we think the Senate race would be likelier to become highly competitive than the gubernatorial race, but we think it’s likelier that in the end neither become true nail-biters.

With abortion likely becoming a higher-profile issue, the top 2 Ohio races will provide a clear contrast (as will others across the country). Vance and DeWine are against abortion rights, and that deeply-held stance has been a defining feature of the governor’s long career in public life. Whaley and Ryan, meanwhile, are supportive of abortion rights, although when Ryan started his career in the House, he was not (indeed, the Democratic Party’s stronger identification with cultural liberalism over the past several decades is likely a reason why places like Ryan’s base in the Mahoning Valley eventually moved away from Democrats). We’ll see how important the issue is; it stands to reason that if the Democrats keep these races close, some of the key swing voters will be Republican primary voters concentrated in urban and suburban areas who backed Dolan, the only Republican who did not seek Trump’s endorsement.

We don’t think primary turnout trends are necessarily predictive of the future, but we will be watching to see if they provide some additional support for our prior assumptions about the midterm. In Ohio, there were about 1.07 million votes cast in the GOP gubernatorial primary, up from about 835,000 in 2018. Meanwhile, there were only about 500,000 cast in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, down from about 690,000 in 2018. These numbers may change (this was as of Wednesday morning), and there are some extenuating circumstances: The Republican Senate primary was by far the biggest race, and Ohio voters can easily go where the action is when they pick a primary ballot. That said, if your prior assumption was that we’re in a Republican-leaning environment and that Republican enthusiasm is higher than Democratic enthusiasm (and those are our assumptions), the primary turnout in Ohio lends support to those assumptions.

Here are a few other observations on the Ohio results, as well as Indiana, which held a lower-stakes primary on Tuesday night as well.

— Trump scored another endorsement victory in the OH-13 Republican primary, as former Miss Ohio Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (R) won her race, although she only got a little under 30% in a crowded field. She will face former state House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D) in a new, Biden-won swing district that covers the Akron-Canton area. This race remains a Toss-up.

— Former Trump aide Max Miller (R), also backed by Trump, easily won the open-seat primary in another Northeast Ohio seat, OH-7. He should have little trouble in the general election in a Safe Republican race.

— While Trump apparently did not formally endorse Air Force veteran J.R. Majewski (R), he did speak highly of him publicly — Majewski is a Trump super-fan who decorated his yard in support of the former president and attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 (he says he did not participate in the subsequent storming of the Capitol). He defeated 2 higher-profile state legislators in the competitive OH-9, where long-time incumbent Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) is seeking to continue her 4-decade stint in the House. We feel fairly confident in saying that Republicans would have preferred a different nominee, but this is a Trump-won district in a Republican-leaning year, so we are going to hold at a Toss-up rating for now.

— After defeating progressive Nina Turner in a very competitive special election primary last year, establishment-friendly Rep. Shontel Brown (D, OH-11) demolished Turner in a rematch on Tuesday. This is a Safe Democratic seat.

— Rep. Frank Mrvan (D, IN-1) will face Air Force veteran Jennifer-Ruth Green, a Black Republican, in a Republican-trending Biden +8 seat we recently moved from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. The northwest Indiana seat is covered by the pricey Chicago media market, which presents challenges for ad buying.

— Former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R), who faced former Rep. Baron Hill (D) in 4 straight elections during the 2000s in southern Indiana, attempted a comeback in the open-seat Republican primary for IN-9. But he lost to former state Sen. Erin Houchin (R), who should have an easy time winning in the fall.