J.D. Vance, the former globalist and current America Firster, completed an improbable comeback on Tuesday, winning an Ohio Republican primary for U.S. Senate despite trailing by a wide margin for most of the race. But the real victor in the race was Donald Trump—and the most telling loser was not the runner-up, Josh Mandel.
The former president had rolled out a risky strategy weeks earlier, endorsing a host of candidates across the country who were far from sure things. By endorsing candidates like Vance, Dr. Oz (leading narrowly in Pennsylvania’s Senate race), and former Senator David Perdue (currently trailing in Georgia’s gubernatorial contest), Trump could claim credit for their victories and, in turn, ensure their fealty if and when he returns to the White House. In the process, he would also further cement his hold on Republican politics, reminding potential challengers that he’s still the boss. The risk, of course, is that he would fail, look like a loser, and show upstarts like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that he isn’t as strong as he seems.
In Ohio, at least, the gamble has paid off. In a seven-person race full of many Trump disciples—with all but one candidate, state Senator Matt Dolan, slavishly vying for the former president’s endorsement—Vance had initially struggled to gain a foothold. Yes, he was well known in elite circles as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up poor in rural Ohio that moderates praised as a means of understanding the rise of MAGA, but he had little name recognition and only a skeleton staff. Most problematic of all, he had been one of Trump’s most vocal critics in 2016, referring to him as “America’s Hitler” and comparing him to “cultural heroin.” Trump, he wrote in The Atlantic, the organ of the liberal establishment, “makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.”
It was ultimately Trump’s endorsement—coupled with $15 million from Peter Thiel—that put Vance over the top. When Trump took the stage with Vance on April 15, Vance was still trailing Mandel, the fellow Trumper and former state treasurer; 11 days later, he was leading—with double the support he had a month earlier. Trump referring to Vance as “J.P. right?” and then “J.D. Mandel” did nothing to dampen the effect of his endorsement. Ultimately, Vance and every other candidate Trump endorsed won in Ohio. Trump now has a definitive rebuttal to those who believed his grip over the party was loosening, and Republican candidates in other states are certain to exert even more energy trying to win his approval.
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The most significant part of Tuesday’s election in Ohio may have been Dolan’s finish. The son of a billionaire family that owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, he was self-funding his campaign and pointedly refused to pay deference to Trump. The former president was inevitably obsessed with him, sending out statements decrying the Guardians’ recent name change and attacking Dolan as another RINO after he refused to endorse Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. A strong finish—or even victory—from Dolan might have breathed life into the Never Trump right and given hope to establishmentarians attempting to wrest back control of the GOP. As the race drew to a close, it seemed like this was possible, with Dolan remaining close to Vance, in part by spending $11 million of his own money. With six MAGA candidates in the race, some pundits wondered whether Dolan could eke out an improbable victory thanks to vote-splitting among Trumpists—and if so, might that suggest the beginning of the end of Trumpism?
It didn’t happen. Instead, Dolan finished third, half a percentage point behind Mandel and nearly 10 behind Vance. His performance was strongest in Ohio’s big cities and wealthy suburbs—not exactly where Republicans are looking to boost turnout in the upcoming midterms.
Even if Vance had lost on Tuesday, Trump would have won. Mandel was the next likely winner, and he immediately would have kissed Trump’s ring, the endorsement snub already long forgotten. In a way, even a Dolan victory would have been misleading, given that the rest of the field was competing for the Trumpist vote; he could have won with a third of the vote, like Vance did, but that would mean that two-thirds of voters were backing Trumpism.
This, as it happens, would be consistent with Republicans’ views nationwide: Polls consistently show that roughly two-thirds of them want Trump to lead the party. And so, as the year wears on, nearly every Republican candidate in the country will continue to lavish him with praise, visit him at Mar-a-Lago, and dutifully parrot his deranged talking points. Trump’s crown will slip someday; it always does. But for now it’s firmly embedded in the yellow carpet atop his head.