Primary season continues to roll on with contests Tuesday in West Virginia and Nebraska. GOP primaries in both states will again test the power of former President Trump’s endorsement.
J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author, emerged from a well-funded field of Republicans vying to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman.
It was the marquee contest of primaries in Ohio and Indiana last Tuesday in which incumbents and establishment-backed figures otherwise largely prevailed. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine easily bested Republicans who had criticized his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown cruised to victory in her Cleveland-area congressional district in a rematch against progressive Nina Turner.
Vance was languishing in the polls and written off by several of his rivals — until Trump stepped into the race. With his mid-April endorsement, the former President delivered Vance what nearly everyone else in the race had coveted and built their campaign around trying to secure.
The shift was immediate. At Vance’s campaign stops, some attendees said they were persuaded by Trump. At his rivals’ events, voters said they had planned to vote for someone else — but Trump’s endorsement had given them pause.
Vance’s victory underscored the former President’s role as the kingmaker in the Republican Party. Though it’s not clear whether Trump will succeed in his effort to oust incumbent Republicans he believes have wronged him, Ohio’s results demonstrated that in open-seat races, his endorsement might be the most important factor.
The political press, Vance said at his victory party Tuesday night, “wanted 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.”
How Vance did it: Vance tapped into an anti-establishment message, taking constant aim at China and slamming Democrats over border security problems that he blamed for Ohio’s opioid crisis. He also copped to his biggest liability in the primary, telling Republican crowds bluntly that his past criticism of Trump had been wrong.
It didn’t hurt that the Republican primary was a months-long demolition derby. At an early debate, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons — who at the time were jockeying for first place in the polls — nearly fist-fought. No one consistently topped 30% in the polls, and a huge portion of the primary electorate was undecided.
Vance’s ready-for-television personality and ease at the microphone were obvious. He had the backing of billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel, who pumped millions of dollars into a television advertising campaign to boost Vance. And he had already won over Trump’s GOP acolytes — he campaigned with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump Jr.
But all of that wasn’t enough to overcome his previous critiques of the former President — until Trump himself endorsed Vance and said at a rally in Delaware County last month that he didn’t mind that Vance had once “said some bad sh*t about me.”
“I want to pick somebody that’s going to win, and this man is going to win,” Trump said at the rally.
Read takeaways from last week’s Ohio and Indiana primaries here.