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Trump's endorsement power was evident in Ohio and Indiana — though there are limits

Ohio Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance arrives onstage in Cincinnati after winning the primary Tuesday night.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Ohio Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance arrives onstage in Cincinnati after winning the primary Tuesday night.

Republican candidates backed by former President Donald Trump had a good night in Ohio and Indiana primaries Tuesday night.

Many of these candidates are younger and likely to make it to Congress — and if more of them win elsewhere this year, this cycle could represent something of a bridge to Trumpism, even post-Trump. They are examples of the potentially lasting effects of how Trump has changed GOP politics — although there are limits to his influence.

Pro-Trump candidates continued to do best in rural areas, underscoring where his power is concentrated, but there remains a question of how well Trumpism can do in swing areas.

In the more short term — and something worth tracking — there was an indication that Republican enthusiasm is up, while Democrats' is down. That's evident in how much GOP turnout rose, compared with the 2018 primaries.

That's one early warning sign for President Biden and his party in the president's first midterm, when parties out of power historically do well. Biden's stature within the party, though, got a small boost when an Ohio candidate he endorsed won in a landslide over a progressive firebrand who lost only narrowly last year.

The headliner of the night was J.D. Vance

Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author, won a crowded Ohio Republican Senate primary in the race to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman.

Vance, who got a boost after Trump endorsed him, defeated former state Treasurer Josh Mandel by about 8 points. Vance had been much further down in the polls before Trump's endorsement, and he knew exactly who to thank Tuesday night.

"Thanks to the president for everything, for endorsing me," said Vance, 37, who in 2016 called himself a "Never Trump guy" and said he "never liked him."

He's changed his tune.

"A lot of fake news media out there," Vance said, continuing, "wanted to write the 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."

Trump also feuded with — and defeated — a powerful pro-GOP outside group, the Club for Growth, in this race. The club, which has often aligned with the former president, continued to support Mandel after Trump endorsed Vance. That drew Trump's ire and, at one point, Trump reportedly sent the head of the group a text cursing him out.

Vance will face off against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan

Ryan easily won the Democratic nomination. Vance, who accused Ryan Tuesday night of running as a "Trump Democrat," starts as the favorite in a state that has trended more Republican.

Democrats hope Ryan can make inroads with a working class-focused message, but the politics of this state are clear — so much so that when Ryan was asked if he wants Biden to campaign with him, he said he's running his own race.

Other Trump candidates did well in congressional races

- Ohio's 7th Congressional District

Max Miller, a former Trump White House staffer, won the primary in Ohio's 7th district. Miller is all but assured of becoming a congressman because of the conservative bent of the district.

Miller, 33, was initially running this cycle against Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted for Trump's impeachment. But Gonzalez retired instead of face the Trump onslaught. After redistricting, Miller wound up running in a different district held by GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs. But Gibbsretired, clearing the path for Miller.

Former President Donald Trump listens as Max Miller, Republican nominee for Ohio's 7th Congressional District, speaks during a rally on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump listens as Max Miller, Republican nominee for Ohio's 7th Congressional District, speaks during a rally on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio.

Miller is a controversial figure. He's been accused of physical abuse by ex-girlfriend Stephanie Grisham, another former White House aide. Miller denies the allegations and has sued Grisham for libel and defamation.

Grisham's book also described Miller as Trump's "Music Man," playing Trump show tunes, like Memories from Cats, to calm the then-president down.

"We will protect life, finish the wall, fund our police, support our military, fight for fair trade deals, and stop the Biden Administration's insane runaway spending," Miller said in a statement after his win, parroting the Trump "America First" agenda. "We will stand up for our country and our citizens, and we will ensure America is respected once again."

- Ohio's 9th Congressional District

In a key seat that Republicans are hoping to flip this fall, a man who twice painted a 19,000-square foot Trump banner on his lawn, J.R. Majewski, will be taking on longtime Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in Ohio's 9th district.

Kaptur is facing one of the most difficult elections of her career this year, after redistricting significantly changed the district's composition.

Majewski is a newcomer to politics and ran on a message reviving "Trump's America." "It's time to make America dominant again," Majewski, 42, says in one of his ads, showing the phrase — mimicking Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan — painted onto the side of an 18-wheeler truck.

- Indiana's 1st Congressional District

In Indiana's 1st district, another pro-Trump candidate who cuts an interesting profile won in a Democratic-held seat that is expected to be competitive this fall.

Jennifer-Ruth Green, a former Iraq veteran and Air Force pilot who won the GOP nod by 25 points, ran her entire campaign bashing her main opponent for not supporting Trump in 2016.

Green, who is Black, ran ads saying she would advance Trump's "America First" policies and on a platform that's anti-abortion rights and for keeping transgender girls out of girls sports. She would be the only Black woman Republican member of Congress if she beats freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan.

Despite pro-Trump candidate successes, there is evidence that Trump's power only goes so far

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine won the GOP nomination again. He faced a challenge from three more Trump-aligned candidates, who were critical of DeWine's management of the coronavirus pandemic.

But DeWine, who had the power of incumbency on his side, beat back former Rep. Jim Renacci by 20 points. Trump didn't endorse in this race, though Renacci tried. He even hired troubled ex-Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to run his race.

In the secretary of state's race, Trump surprisingly endorsed the man who won, incumbent Frank LaRose over a challenger who lined up far more strongly with Trump in pushing his election lies about election fraud that wasn't.

LaRose previously defended U.S. elections, saying in 2020 it was "irresponsible" for anyone to "fearmonger about elections administration." But he has since softened his stance, telling NPR that he believes there were "shenanigans" in other states.

So candidates who don't fully embrace Trumpism can win, especially if they have money and an established political brand. And while Trump's endorsement catapulted Vance in a crowded Senate field, Vance only won about a third of the vote — though several other candidates were pro-Trump as well.

That's been one of the stories of the Trump era, even for Trump himself. He was rarely the majority choice when he ran in the GOP primary for president in 2016, but Republicans were never able to coalesce around an alternative.

And it's clear, right now, Trump is and will be an important factor in these elections.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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