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Trump waded into the Ohio GOP Senate primary. But it’s not all about him.

Cleveland Plain Dealer politics reporter Andrew Tobias explains why Ohio’s drama-filled GOP Senate primary isn’t just a referendum on the former president.

Former President Donald Trump listens as JD Vance, an Ohio Republican candidate for US Senate, speaks during a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, in Delaware, Ohio. 
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Republican primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat has been full of drama as most of the five viable candidates spent months publicly and privately pandering to secure Trump’s endorsement. Because of that, the race is also being viewed as a bellwether for the strength of Donald Trump’s grip on the party.

But Andrew Tobias, a politics and statehouse reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, cautions that the Ohio GOP primary won’t be as clear a referendum on Trump as it may seem. Even after venture capitalist, Hillbilly Elegy author, and former Trump critic JD Vance got Trump’s endorsement less than three weeks before the May 3 primary, “nobody’s really packing it up and going home,” Tobias said. And even though there’s plenty of evidence the endorsement made Vance the favorite, it’s still a fluid, open race.

Former state treasurer Josh Mandel, former state Republican Party chair Jane Timken, businessman Mike Gibbons, and state senator Matt Dolan are fanning out in the closing days. Trump’s endorsement has only put a bigger target on Vance’s back, and his opponents and their boosters are aiming right for it in their closing messages.

To understand how this is playing out in Ohio, I spoke to Tobias on Wednesday. He was in Grove City, a rural suburb of Columbus, where Vance was set to appear at a campaign event. Our conversation, below, has been edited for clarity.

Natalie Jennings

Two significant things have happened in this race in the last 24 hours. One is a Fox News poll out last night showing a big swing for JD Vance since their March poll. What’s your read on the state of the race and the momentum that Vance has picked up since Trump endorsed him?

Andrew Tobias

Between a lot of internal polling, the Fox News poll, and talking to the campaigns, I think it’s generally correct that Vance has gotten a surge from the endorsement. If you believe the polls, he was maybe last out of the five major candidates, and now he appears to be first. But it’s so tightly clustered that I don’t rule out the possibility that any of the five candidates may win. Obviously it’s not equally probable for all of them.

There was a lot of national interest in Vance from day one, but it was hard to really see that he was catching on for a lot of that time. Getting the Trump endorsement completely changed the dynamic of the race for him.

Natalie Jennings

How did the endorsement play among influential Republicans in the state? And voters?

Andrew Tobias

The thing that the endorsement hasn’t done is clear the field. I believe that had Trump issued this endorsement a couple of months ago, you might have seen somebody like Jane Timken or whoever drop out of the race. But the fact that it happened in the middle of early voting and so close to Election Day, a lot of the campaigns looked at the numbers and said, “Hey, we can still win this.”

At the county party chair level, there’s been — it’s almost dismay. Had Trump endorsed Timken or Gibbons or Mandel, they would have accepted it. But Vance, between his past anti-Trump criticism and the lack of involvement he’s had with Ohio politics, they’re kind of scratching their heads. It’s a mixture of confusion and, honestly, some anger and dismay. Whether that actually trickles down to voters really depends on a lot of factors. But if you talk to county chairs and grassroots activists, their response has been mixed at best.

Natalie Jennings

That brings me to the second big thing this morning, which is that Club for Growth released an ad that doubles down on this feud they’re having with Trump over the race. They’re backing Mandel, and in the ad they directly question Trump’s judgment. What do you make of this?

Andrew Tobias

What’s interesting is that it isn’t a contrast ad where it’s like, “JD Vance can’t be trusted but Josh Mandel is great.” It is really just hitting JD Vance. I don’t know what result it will have, but it’s very intriguing to me that a major group on the right would not only say Trump got it wrong, but even brought up Mitt Romney, which has to really sting for Trump on a personal level. It’s an escalation, an open break with the former president, just really fascinating.

Natalie Jennings

The race has been so nationalized in terms of money and media attention, but what is on the mind of the primary voters?

Andrew Tobias

I tend to believe that all races have gotten really heavily nationalized. In the past, you might say trade is really important in Ohio because of the history of manufacturers shutting down, or in Cincinnati, there’s the Brent Spence Bridge that is chronically being closed that goes to connect Cincinnati to Kentucky, and maybe infrastructure is important. But, when you talk to voters, inflation is really high on people’s minds. That’s not rocket science, but also cultural issues like critical race theory or transgender issues, election integrity, just kind of the buzzwords on the right. That’s the kind of stuff that you hear people talking about.

It’s tough to differentiate all the candidates from each other on those issues with the exception of Dolan, who is running the sort of Republican campaign you’d think of somebody running like 10 years ago. It’s like going into a time machine. But absent that, a lot of the candidates have been in lockstep on the types of things they’re talking about. It’s this broader cultural war that’s really not different from state to state, frankly.

Natalie Jennings

Let’s talk a bit about Matt Dolan, who has called himself “the only one moving on” from Trump and who Trump has taken shots at over his family’s decision to rename the Cleveland Guardians. Some internal polls show him as competitive. Is there any reason to think he is still in the mix?

Andrew Tobias

I think he has a path to victory but I would not bet money on it. The endorsement that Trump issued flattens out Gibbons and Mandel and bumps up Vance, but not to an insurmountable lead. Dolan has been running ads that are on issues like being tough on China and inflation, that are the same sort of issues that cross over with everyone else, so there’s a scenario where he squeaks by. I do think that it’s an oversimplification to say that Trump doesn’t like somebody and so that means that person just can’t win, but it just gets a lot more complicated.

Natalie Jennings

Do you think there are factors that are being under-covered in the national media that are going to affect the race, or anything that is being overplayed?

Andrew Tobias

It’s just going to be treated as a binary of whether Trump wins or loses. And like I said earlier, I think that a huge factor is when Trump endorsed. Definitely, if Vance wins, Trump can and will take credit for that. But if he loses, there’s a whole lot of factors that go into it, including that Vance has not really been engaged on a local political level.

This is really trite, but it will come down to turnout. I think a higher-turnout environment probably helps Vance because it means that more casual voters are being dialed in and they would be swayed by that Trump support. If it’s a lower-turnout environment, maybe some of the other candidates, with their networks of grassroots supporters and activists and turnout operations, factor in more. I just think the picture is going to be a lot less clear than that sort of Trump wins/Trump loses binary.

When we actually talked to voters about it before and after the endorsement, they basically said, “It’s important, I’ll consider it, but it’s not going to be the only factor for me.” I’m not sure that anybody is gonna say, “Oh, absolutely, I’ll do whatever that guy says.”

The best evidence for him having strong sway is from another race. Last August, there was a special election here to fill [former Rep.] Steve Stivers’s old congressional seat. Trump endorsed Mike Carey, who had never run for office before and wasn’t particularly well-known. It’s not like there was a heavyweight candidate against him, but the usual suspects; state senators and people that had their own strengths. Carey won the race very conclusively. That suggests that Trump can have that kind of sway.

Natalie Jennings

My colleague Andrew Prokop earlier this week wrote about the state of the race for the majority and how likely Democrats are to keep the Senate. His assessment was that Ohio is just not likely to be that competitive given the national environment is so difficult for Democrats. Do you think he’s right? And do you see anything that would change that either way?

Andrew Tobias

With all the disclaimers about external events and predicting the future and stuff like that, I wouldn’t list Ohio as a likely state that Democrats will win.

Depending on who wins the nomination, you have these wealthy candidates, and their lives and backgrounds will contrast with [likely Democratic nominee] Tim Ryan. He’s like a normal guy — been in Congress for a long time but he lives in a middle-class neighborhood, his wife is a teacher. Democrats have this playbook of treating the Republican nominee like Mitt Romney. [Ohio Democratic Sen.] Sherrod Brown has really perfected this rumpled, everyman image. I expect that they would roll out that playbook.

If Vance makes it through, you’re going to see talk about Silicon Valley, Peter Thiel backing [Vance], his flip-flops on Trump, and what else he might flip-flop on. That kind of stuff. But it’s just going to be a lot, nationally, to swim against when basically Joe Biden is going to be on the ballot. So I think your colleague’s generally right, although maybe there’s some wrinkles there.

Natalie Jennings

Let’s say he is right and you get a Senator Vance or Senator Mandel. That’s a big contrast with Senator Portman, who has been compared to vanilla ice cream. How will those differences show up for Ohioans?

Andrew Tobias

Depends on the extent to which Ohioans follow the Senate and what’s at stake. But Portman was lead negotiator on the infrastructure bill that has tangibly funded a lot of projects here. That gets lost in the shuffle because I don’t think that voters are really thinking about infrastructure right now with everything else that’s going on. But by virtue of not having the experience that Portman had, Ohio will lose influence in the Senate. And then if you get a bomb thrower, like Mandel or Vance … it’s just a total change in personalities. I think you’ll see more messaging bills and cultural issues more front and center. The differences between those guys and Rob Portman are apparent.

If Vance is elected, I think the Ohio Chamber of Commerce probably would drop in influence. They recently hired [former Rep.] Steve Stivers. Vance has bragged about not wanting to “bend the knee to Steve Stivers” and generally been hostile to the GOP’s “business-friendly” wing, while Stivers has said some not-nice things about Vance. That has the potential for a lot of downstream consequences, since the Chamber likely has a moderating effect on legislation related to social issues in Columbus.