COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan cruised his way to his party’s nomination for an open Senate seat Tuesday and will now take on the winner of one of the most contentious and closely watched Republican primaries in the nation.
Author and venture capitalist JD Vance is seen as the GOP frontrunner in the race to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman after receiving former President Donald Trump’s late-stage support, capping a bitter and expensive contest that, at one point, saw two candidates nearly come to blows on a debate stage. The race is seen as a critical early test of Trump’s endorsement power as the midterm primary season kicks into high gear.
Ryan was heavily favored to win his three-way Democratic primary against progressive Morgan Harper, a former consumer protection attorney, and Columbus activist and tech exec Traci Johnson. But he is expected to face an uphill battle this fall in a state that was once a political bellwether but voted for Trump twice by an 8-point margin.
Ryan, a 10-term Democratic congressman who ran a failed bid for president in 2020, has tried to distance himself from the national Democratic Party ahead of what is expected to be a brutal November for Democrats. Campaigning in sweatshirts and baseball caps, he has fashioned himself as a blue-collar crusader fighting for working families.
“He’s passionate about fighting for the people of Ohio,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who leads the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm. “The only person that Republican candidate(s) seem to care about is Donald Trump and whether or not Donald Trump will endorse them.”
Elsewhere in the state, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine appears on track to secure his party’s nomination for another term, despite backlash from conservatives over COVID-19 shutdowns and mandates. Meanwhile, in Indiana, more than a dozen state House members are trying to hold off Republican primary challengers who want to push the Legislature further to the right.
Tuesday marks the first multistate contest of the 2022 campaign and comes the day after the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that suggests the court could be poised to overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Such a decision could have a dramatic impact on the course of the midterms, when control of Congress, governors’ mansions and key elections offices are at stake.
The primaries also serve as a clarifying test of Trump’s influence in his party. A Vance victory will likely embolden Trump to keep asserting himself in primary campaigns ahead of another potential presidential run. A setback, however, would raise questions about whether GOP voters are seeking a new direction, especially in a state he won twice by margins of 8 percentage points.
At the Strongsville library in suburban Cleveland, 84-year-old George Clark said he voted for Vance based on Trump’s endorsement.
“I know he’s had some bad press, but I know he’s a conservative and I always vote for conservatives.” Clark said.
But Joanne Mondak, 71, said she voted for state Sen. Matt Dolan, the only major candidate who did not aggressively court Trump. The rest of the field, she said, are “nutcakes” who are “too much Trump.”
Trump reminded Ohio voters Tuesday his stake in the race.
Calling into a Columbus radio show, Trump praised all the candidates seeking the GOP nomination, but said he chose to endorse Vance despite his past Trump criticism because he believes he is best positioned to win the seat in November.
Vance had been trailing in the polls until the former president backed the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and one-time Trump critic in a contest that revolved largely around him. While the timing of Trump’s endorsement — less than three weeks before Election Day and as early voting was already underway — may have dulled its impact, it was a major blow to former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, who had all gone to elaborate lengths to court Trump and his voters.
The race will also go down as the most expensive in state history, with more than $66 million in TV and radio spending alone, according to the Columbus-based Medium Buying firm.
Buoyed by historical trends and Democratic President Joe Biden’s deep unpopularity, Republicans are optimistic about retaking the House and Senate come November. A new president’s party almost always loses in seats in subsequent midterm elections and Republicans hope soaring inflation, high energy prices and lingering frustrations over the country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will further boost their prospects.
Democrats, meanwhile, are banking the GOP — with Trump’s help — will elect candidates so extreme they prove unelectable come November. A Supreme Court decision on abortion could also galvanize traditional Democratic voters.
“By all rights, history tells us that the Democrats are going to lose control of the House,” said Dale Butland, a Democratic strategist in Ohio. “By all rights, we should lose control of the Senate, too. However, the only thing that could save us is if the Republicans nominate a bunch of far-right crazies that are unacceptable in a general election.”
While DeWine is strongly positioned to win a second term, he is expected to face considerable conservative backlash for the aggressive COVID-19 mandates he imposed during the first year of the pandemic.
On the Democratic side, Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, is vying to become Ohio’s first woman elected governor in her race against ex-Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. Whaley has the support of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a popular household name and the state’s top Democrat. Cranley has the backing of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
Associated Press writers Patrick Orsagas in Columbus, Steve Peoples in New York and Mark Gillispie in Strongsville, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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