By Susan Crabtree for RealClearPolitics
In his 2016 bestselling autobiography “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance thanks his grandparents – his “Mamaw” and “Remember in 2019 when workers were doing well in this country, not struggling terribly. Thanks [to] the president for everything, for endorsing me.”
Tuesday night, as Vance stepped closer to his goal of joining the most exclusive club in the country – the U.S. Senate – he thanked his grandparents again, along with President Trump.
“I absolutely gotta thank the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, for providing, ladies and gentlemen, an example of what could be in this country,” Vance, 37, said in his primary victory speech. “Remember in 2019 when workers doing well in this county, not struggling terribly, thanks for the president for everything, for endorsing me.”
Vance then pulled a trademark Trump maneuver, slamming the “fake news media” for wanting to write a story that “this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s America First agenda … Ladies and gentlemen, it ain’t the death of the America First agenda.”
It’s been a heady, evolutionary six years for Vance, the Yale law school graduate and venture capitalist who burst on the scene with his book about growing up “dirt poor’ in Appalachia. Coastal elites immediately embraced his life story as a way to understand Trump’s appeal among the white working class.
During the 2016 campaign, though, Vance declared himself a Never Trumper, dubbing the casino-developer-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician “cultural heroin” for the masses, and argued he was leading working-class voters into a dark place.
However, during the Trump presidency, Vance shifted sharply to become an avid Trump supporter, citing the tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a significant turning point. (His wife, Usha Chilukuri, had clerked for Kavanaugh when he was an appeals court judge.)
Meanwhile, Ohio transformed from a Republican-leaning swing state to a solidly red GOP bastion, supporting Trump by nine percentage points in 2016 and double digits in 2020.
Vance’s win brings to a close a crowded and contentious Republican contest to fill the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, a respected moderate. It also marks a major victory night for Trump, who has taken the unusual step for a former president of picking sides in primaries – a way to solidify his role as party kingmaker while he weighs another White House run in 2024.
Trump undoubtedly tilted the race in Vance’s favor. Before his endorsement, Vance was trailing former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, another Trump acolyte, 28%-23%, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average of polls. Meanwhile, State Sen. Matt Dolan faded in the final stretch.
With more than 95% of the vote reporting late Tuesday night, Vance won 32.2% compared to Mandel’s 23.9% and Dolan’s 23.3%.
Before and after Trump endorsed Vance, his GOP opponents spent millions of advertising dollars reminding voters that Vance had called himself a “Never Trumper” just a few years ago. The conservative Club for Growth’s sister PAC, which backed Mandel, funded an ad that Factcheck.org labeled “misleading” for suggesting that Vance had said some Trump supporters were motivated to back him because they are racist. In fact, the full Vance quote said most of Trump’s voters were inspired by his economic policies or “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal, channeled $13.5 million into a political action committee backing Vance in the race. Vance had worked for Theil as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley before moving back to Ohio. Thiel, along with Trump, influenced Vance’s politics, especially when it comes to opposing China and placing stricter limits on immigration. Despite the infusion, Vance continued to run behind in the polls until Trump’s endorsement.
“The question presented in this primary was, ‘Do we want a border that protects our citizens? Do we want to ship our jobs to China or keep them right here in America for American workers? Do we want a Republican Party who stands for the donors who write checks to the Club for Growth or do we want the Republican Party for the people right here in Ohio?” he asked the crowd Tuesday evening.
Even though Trump’s endorsement inevitably boosted Vance’s candidacy, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Just two days before the primary, Trump appeared to flub J.D. Vance’s name when citing his endorsement, seemingly merging it with Vance’s opponent’s last name. A Newsmax host claimed that it wasn’t a gaffe by Trump but a way to hedge his bets in the race.
“We’ve endorsed … J.P? Right?” Trump asked during his Ohio stumping on Vance’s part Sunday. “J.D. Mandel – and he’s doing great.”
On Monday, Vance minimized the gaffe, saying Trump speaks with such enthusiasm and so often that he was bound to “misspeak” sometimes. Vance now faces Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan, who handily won his party’s primary with 69.7%, with approximately 96.1 of the votes counted, according to the Associated Press.
Another big boon for Trump in Ohio Tuesday was the primary victory of Max Miller, a former Trump campaign and White House aide, who won the Republican nomination for the newly written 7th Congressional District in Northeast Ohio. Miller led the pack as of late Tuesday night despite abuse allegations from his ex-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Miller has denied it.
Miller was initially recruited to challenge Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment. But Gonzalez opted to retire instead.
J.R. Majewski, an Air Force veteran who painted a giant “Trump 2020” sign on his front lawn ahead of the last presidential election, won a crowded GOP nomination and this fall will face Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the history of the House of Representatives. (Kaptur was first elected in 1982.) Majewski defeated Theresa Gavarone, Craig Riedel, and Beth Decker.
And in a close contest in Ohio’s 13th district, southeast of Cleveland, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a lawyer, political commentator, and former Miss Ohio whom Trump endorsed, is projected to win her crowded GOP primary, defeating six other Republicans. She will face Emilia Sykes, the former House minority leader, who ran unopposed in her primary.
At the top of the Ohio state ticket, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also survived the primary even though he is considered a moderate who does not back Trump. Still, the crowded primary kept DeWine’s showing under 50% even though he has served in some elected capacity in the state for more than 40 years.
DeWine was widely criticized by Republicans over the state’s COVID shutdowns, drawing three Republican opponents, including U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, former state Rep. Ron Hood, and farmer Joe Blyston. The three, however, split the Trump vote, leaving DeWine to pick up a solid 48.1% compared to Renacci’s 28%, Joe Blyston’s 21.8%, and Ron Hood’s 2.1%. DeWine will face Democrat Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton in the general election.
Syndicated with permission from Real Clear Wire.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
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