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4 themes to watch in the Ohio and Indiana primaries

There’s a big test of Trump’s influence, an intra-party Democratic fight, and more.

J.D. Vance waving, with America flags in the background.
JD Vance attends a rally as Donald Trump delivers remarks at a Save America event with guests including Vance, in Delaware, Ohio, on April 23.
Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The busiest month of the 2022 midterm primary season kicks off Tuesday, with Indiana and Ohio holding their nominating contests.

The closest-watched race will be the Republican primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat. But there are several other races to watch that day that will reveal a lot about the parties and set up interesting general election matches.

Here’s what the Vox politics team will be tracking on Tuesday night.

Trump’s influence looms over Ohio’s GOP primaries

The question of former president Donald Trump’s power looms large over the GOP primary for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Venture capitalist JD Vance was seen as the white working-class whisperer by many in the press when his memoir Hillbilly Elegy was released in 2016, and back then, Vance was a harsh Trump critic, even saying privately he might be “America’s Hitler.” But Vance sounds quite different today. He’s campaigned as a staunch Trump ally and has attacked the traditional GOP establishment, and fired off frequent tweets that have induced (and seem designed to induce) outrage among liberals.

Such behavior helped Vance win Trump’s endorsement in April, and it led to outrage from supporters of former state treasurer Josh Mandel, who has tried to run an even more extreme campaign and who had previously been leading in polls. (To Trump’s annoyance, Mandel has retained the support of the conservative anti-tax group the Club for Growth.)

Trump’s endorsement is believed to have boosted Vance, but there’s been little public polling of the race, and the field is crowded. Other candidates include businessman Mike Gibbons, who had been polling well but recently mused that the middle class should pay more taxes; former state party chair Jane Timken, who is viewed as more of a GOP establishment figure; and state senator Matt Dolan, who is actually running as a Trump critic, saying his party needs to move on from him.

Meanwhile, in the open seat primary for Ohio’s Seventh District, former Trump aide Max Miller is the frontrunner. After Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R) voted for Trump’s impeachment in January 2021, Miller launched a primary challenge to him with Trump’s backing, and fundraised heavily, spurring Gonzalez to retire.

But a tumultuous redistricting process eliminated that district, so Miller switched over to take on Rep. Bob Gibbs (R) in the Seventh District instead. Gibbs too decided to retire rather than take on the fight. Politico’s Michael Kruse has reported on Miller’s checkered past (which includes a series of arrests and a claim that he slapped his then-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham). These scandals do not seem to have impeded his rise, as Miller has heavily out-raised all his remaining opponents in this safely Republican district.
Andrew Prokop

A test for progressive ideas in Ohio, and its Democratic base

While Republicans have dominated the conversation about Ohio’s Senate primary, two Democratic contests may contain lessons about the future of left-wing politics in a state that’s been trending Republican.

Tim Ryan, the 10-term congressman and one-time presidential candidate, is the frontrunner in the state’s Democratic primary for senate. He is facing challenges from a Squad-aligned progressive, Morgan Harper, and a business executive, Traci Johnson. All have made the economy and jobs centerpieces in their campaigns, including revitalizing the state’s manufacturing industry.

Both the Ohio Democratic Party and Ohio’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, have backed Ryan, whose campaign straddles progressive priorities, like investing in clean energy jobs and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and conventional Democratic priorities, like increasing union-backed and infrastructure jobs and making health care affordable. Ahead in polling, the primary seems like Ryan’s to lose.

The more interesting intra-party fight is happening in the 11th Congressional District, where incumbent Rep. Shontel Brown is defending a seat in a rematch with one of the country’s most visible progressive leaders, Nina Turner. Turner was a key Sanders surrogate in the 2016 and 2020 primaries and led Our Revolution, the national progressive organization, after Sen. Bernie Sanders’s first failed presidential run.

Brown beat Turner by 4,000 votes in the primary for the special election in 2021, an almost six-point margin, then won the reliably Democratic district. But there’s a catch to this race: After redistricting this year, 30 percent of the district’s eligible voters are new, and are evaluating Brown and Turner at the ballot box for the first time.

Both have a long history in local politics, and this race will be determined by the district’s Black residents, Prentiss Haney, a co-executive director of the progressive Ohio Organizing Collaborative, told Vox. “What it really comes down to in that race, is who, especially the Black citizens of Cleveland, and what do they want?” Haney said. “They have very similar experiences in terms of what they could deliver to the community. It’s going to be about what Black citizens in that area think each candidate can deliver.”

Because of the collapse of Build Back Better (and its social programs focused on families and affordable child care) and rising inflation, incumbency may end up hurting Brown and giving Turner a better chance to persuade Democratic voters that a more radical approach to politics and negotiating may work better than the status quo. In a year in which Democrats are facing an uphill battle to hold seats in both houses, Turner’s challenge may be the best chance for progressives to make a gain in the state — and add another member to The Squad.
Christian Paz

Incumbent Republicans are expected to bat down challenges from the right

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is among the Republican incumbents facing a challenge from the right this primary cycle.

DeWine was known early in the pandemic for swiftly implementing measures to combat Covid-19 like business closures and mask mandates. Competitors including former Rep. Jim Renacci, former state representative Ron Hood, and businessman Joe Blystone are arguing that DeWine overreached and that they would have taken a more hands-off approach.

“DeWine really angered a lot of people in the Republican base in Ohio during the Covid pandemic, with a lot of his precautions that he put in place,” University of Akron political science professor David Cohen told Vox. “The right started calling him Dictator DeWine, a moniker that has never really gone away.”

Cohen notes that the three primary challengers are expected to split the vote among more right-leaning Trump supporters, and that DeWine is widely expected to come out on top. On the Democratic side, two former mayors — Cincinnati’s John Cranley and Dayton’s Nan Whaley — are competing to take on DeWine in the fall, and have emphasized issues including gun control and abortion rights.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has a conservative challenger as well. Former state legislator John Adams is running by echoing Trump’s unfounded claims about the validity of the 2020 election results. LaRose, meanwhile, has expressed confidence in the state’s outcomes (Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2020) while being careful not to reject the former president’s voter fraud claims completely. He was recently among the Republican candidates to receive Trump’s endorsement.
Li Zhou

Republicans are going after Democrat-held House seats

Redistricting has created opportunities for Ohio Republicans, and now they’re selecting who they’ll put up against Democrats in districts that got more favorable to them in Ohio’s messy, still-ongoing redistricting process.

The Ninth District, once solidly Democratic, has been held by incumbent Rep. Marcy Kaptur for more than three decades. Now, it’s more of a toss-up. Republican state Sen. Theresa Gavarone — who had a hand in creating the new maps as co-chair of the state senate’s local government and elections committee — is one of four candidates competing in the GOP primary for Kaptur’s seat.

In the 13th District, Tim Ryan, the longtime Democratic congressman running for Senate, is vacating his seat. The uncontested Democratic candidate is state Rep. Emilia Sykes. It’s a crowded primary on the GOP side with seven candidates in contention, including conservative political commentator Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, who has far surpassed any of her opponents in fundraising; Shay Hawkins, who previously worked as a congressional aide; and Janet Folger Porter, an anti-abortion activist and the architect of Ohio’s “heartbeat bill.”

Republicans left Indiana’s first district — its only competitive House one — largely untouched in the redistricting process. But the National Republican Congressional Committee has identified it as a key target in 2022, hoping to recapture it for the first time since 1931. Seven candidates, including former LaPorte mayor Blair Milo, are vying for a chance to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. Frank Mrvan.

Indiana’s Ninth District also has a competitive GOP primary to replace Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, who is departing Congress at the end of the year to contemplate a potential run for governor in 2024. Nine Republicans have entered the race, including former Rep. Mike Sodrel and former state Sen. Erin Houchin.
Nicole Narea