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5 things to watch in the Ohio and Indiana primaries

The state’s Republican contest for an open Senate seat is the marquee match-up of the day — and the first in a series of heated GOP clashes that will unfold in May, with races in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia and more set for the following weeks.

Here are five things to watch Tuesday:

The wide-open Senate primary

The seven-candidate GOP race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman features a huge swath of undecided primary voters choosing from a series of options: the candidate Trump endorsed; one of several who tried to emulate him; or the one who represents a break from Trumpism.

Polls show that Trump-backed J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and venture capitalist, and Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer who has embraced Trump’s cultural battles and campaigned with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are at the front of the field.

There are some indications, though, that state Sen. Matt Dolan is a late riser. Dolan, whose family owns Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians, is the only candidate who has not parroted Trump’s lies about election fraud. Multiple polls have shown him moving into third place, behind Vance and Mandel, and consolidating the support of moderate Republicans. Offering another hint that Dolan had become a factor in the race, Trump issued a statement blaming him for the Cleveland Guardians dropping their former Indians moniker.

The other Republican Senate candidates, self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons and former state GOP chairwoman Jane Timken, Portman’s preferred candidate, have faded in polls in the race’s final stretch. But with about one-quarter of the state’s likely Republican electorate undecided and no candidate breaking away in any public polls, the race appeared wide open headed into what’s expected to be a low-turnout Election Day.

Test of Trump’s influence

Mandel’s campaign signs say he is “pro-God, pro-guns, pro-Trump.” Gibbons offered himself as a businessman, not a politician, in the Trump mold. Timken touted Trump’s role in elevating her to become state GOP chairwoman in 2017.

But the former President eschewed all of them and endorsed Vance, who in 2016 was a vocal opponent of Trump but has since recanted that criticism. Trump’s decision infuriated many Ohio Republicans and confused some GOP voters, who were being bombarded at once by pro-Vance ads touting Trump’s support and anti-Vance ads that showed him saying he might vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and that some Trump supporters “voted for (Trump) for racist reasons.”

Ten days before the primary, Trump made a forceful case for Vance at a rally north of Columbus, telling the crowd that he’d moved past Vance’s 2016 criticism and insisting that Vance stood the best chance in November against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan.

“I want to pick somebody that’s going to win, and this man is going to win,” Trump said then.

Eight days later, he appeared to have forgotten Vance’s name. At a rally in Nebraska on Sunday, Trump said of Ohio: “We’ve endorsed J.P., right? J.D. Mandel, and he’s doing great.”

The biggest question Tuesday — one with implications through the rest of the 2022 primary calendar and for Republicans considering 2024 presidential runs — is whether GOP voters will follow Trump’s lead or forget about his endorsement.

A Vance victory would show that Trump is still the party’s primary mover. If Vance loses, though, it would at once weaken Trump and embolden groups like the conservative Club for Growth, which pumped millions into TV ads backing Mandel even after Trump waded into the race. It could turn Ohio into a playbook to Republicans in other states, including Pennsylvania, who are trying to win without Trump’s support.

Tim Ryan looks for room in Ohio

Ryan’s Democratic Senate primary against attorney Morgan Harper is largely a forgone conclusion. How Ryan positions himself in the general election — and what his run will say about the future of Democrats in the state — will be anything but inevitable.

Ryan is looking to do something that has eluded all Democrats not named Sen. Sherrod Brown for years: Win a statewide race in Ohio. No Democrat other than Brown has won nonjudicial statewide office in Ohio since 2008, and President Barack Obama was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win Ohio in 2012. Ryan is also trying to accomplish this feat at a particularly difficult time for Democrats as the party faces historical and economic headwinds.
Ryan, in a recent interview with CNN, said that the average Ohio voter’s perception of the Democratic Party is “much different” now than it was when he first ran for Congress in 2002, forcing him to address the fact that Democrats “have not done a good job as a party of letting people know that we’re fighting for them” and, in turn, distance himself some of the national Democratic messaging that has hurt the party the state.

“I’ve got my own record,” Ryan said. “I’ve been doing this a while, and so I’m not as tied to the Biden agenda only because I’ve got a 20-year record of doing things. … I’ve got a really good story to share with the Ohio voters that’s not tied to Biden. And so, I’ve got some room.”

Ryan’s race, and how he runs it with Democrats in control of the White House, Senate and House, will be the latest test of whether a Democrat focused on economic populism can overcome Ohio’s rightward shift and the answer will determine whether the state is anywhere near the key political bellwether it once was.

Battle for the soul of the Democratic Party — again

For the second time in less than a year, Democrats Shontel Brown, now a House member, and Nina Turner are facing off in a tight race to be their party’s nominee in the state’s 11th Congressional District.

Though Brown is now the incumbent, which has brought with it more support from Capitol Hill, progressives are again waging a fiery campaign to claim the heavily Democratic seat — as they seek to assure that, come what may in November, the House Democrats are a more progressive group in the next Congress. Turner has the backing of leading progressives from around the country and, like last year, the editorial board of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

On Brown’s side are President Joe Biden, who endorsed her in late April, along with a handful of top Democratic officials and moderate-friendly outside groups like the Democratic Majority for Israel’s super PAC, which says it spent more than $1.1 million on her campaign.

Turner, a former Ohio state senator who rose to national prominence as a close aide to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential bids, and her supporters are hopeful that the newly drawn district lines — which include more of Cleveland, where Turner outpaced Brown even in defeat last year — and higher turnout will swing the vote her way.

The Republican primary clash that wasn’t

There was a time when incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine appeared vulnerable to a challenge from Trump-aligned candidates running to his right.

Not anymore.

DeWine, who has spent decades in federal and statewide office, is a conservative establishment titan in Ohio, but even as the state has moved right, DeWine — both temperamentally and politically — has remained in the middle of the GOP. Despite some backlash from the base over his aggressive initial handling of Covid-19 (statewide restrictions didn’t last long), DeWine’s top opponent, former US Rep. Jim Renacci, never gained much steam — in part because he is splitting the anti-incumbent vote with a little known farmer, Joe Blystone.

Victory for DeWine in an Ohio campaign season dominated by the GOP’s wild Senate primary would also underscore the unique difficulties facing right wing candidates either aligned or backed by Trump in statewide elections, where a degree of moderation appears to hold more appeal than in federal races.

Trump, who campaigned in Ohio for Vance, never endorsed any of the three allies running against DeWine despite hinting he might do so in November 2020. The GOP winner would face either former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley or former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley in November.

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