WASHINGTON — In the never-ending cycle of US elections, in which there’s always another vote just on the horizon, the midterm congressional elections during a president’s first term are usually talked about as a referendum on that president’s progress.
This year, there’s some of that, but especially now during primary season, these elections are also being seen as a referendum on the former president: defeated and, in the eyes of many, disgraced, Donald Trump is still out there rallying, endorsing, enforcing his grip on the Republican Party, demonstrating his enduring influence on voters.
In that way, Ohio’s primary day Tuesday was the first big test of the year for the former guy. The verdict was a win for Trump personally and Trumpism generally, in the form of a narrow victory by JD Vance over a field of four other candidates to claim the Republican nomination for the open Senate seat from which moderate Republican Rob Portman is retiring.
Trump picked the winner with his endorsement, there’s not much doubt about that. Maybe more importantly, it sure looks like Trump’s endorsement made Vance the winner: four of the five candidates were climbing all over each other in an almost literally bruising I contested to claim they were the true MAGA standard-bearers. Before Trump’s endorsement less than three weeks ago, Vance was typically running third in polls — he was in single-digit support among Republican voters in mid-March. Trump’s nod rocketed him to the top of the heap, albeit with only 32 per cent of the total vote. The only anti-Trump Republican in the field, State Sen. Matt Dolan finished third with 23 per cent.
But it’s a victory for Trump beyond being evidence of the candidate-selection Midas touch he has always liked to claim he has — one that will be tested again soon when his picks for Pennsylvania senator (Oprah doctor Mehmet Oz) and Georgia governor (former senator David Perdue) face tough primaries this spring. The race for the Republican nomination in what has traditionally been considered a national bellwether state (until 2020, Ohio’s electoral votes had gone to the winning president in every election since 1964) was thoroughly dominated by Trumpism. Eighty per cent of the Republican candidates swore allegiance to Trump, and they attracted 77 per cent of Republican votes.
By all accounts, the most effective attacks on Vance focused on his previous stance as a “Never Trumper,” who once described the former president as “an idiot” and “America’s Hitler.” Indeed, it might be Vance’s transformation from critic to disciple that most illustrates the way the party has fallen in lockstep behind Trump even after his humiliating loss of him in 2020, his attempts to overturn that loss culminating in Jan. 6, and all of the other revelations since.
In 2016, Vance rose to fame on the strength of his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which detailed the troubles of his family and, through them, those of Red State rural America. At the time, he was unequivocal, saying Trump was selling snake oil to people desperate for solutions to real problems.
“Trump is a cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it,” Vance wrote in The Atlantic shortly after his book’s publication.
Well, if you can’t beat him, join him: in this race, Vance was the most enthusiastic peddler of what appeared to be exactly the same snake oil. he said the nation needed a “de-woke-ification program,” suggested Trump should defy Supreme Court rulings, and tweeted, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” I have accused President Joe Biden of flooding the “heartland” with fentanyl to “kill a bunch of MAGA voters,” and ran ads saying if the media calls you racist and says you hate Mexicans, Vance was your guy. He drew endorsements from the QAnon-leaning wing of Republicans in Congress, and campaigned with Donald Trump Jr. at his side. He talked up the Trump border wall — a concept he once explicitly mocked — as a cure for what ailed Ohio. (If you don’t have a map handy, Ohio lies on the northern US border, more than 2,100 kilometers from where that Trump wall was being built.)
He told The New York Times that he saw Trump not just as the source of an endorsement or a convenient election slogan, but as the originator of a “substantive agenda” to carry out. That story said Vance aimed to be “the patron saint of Trumpism.”
Whether his St. Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion regarding the former president’s virtues represents a deeply cynical election ploy or a genuine revision of his entire world view, it handily illustrates — as does his victory, and that of openly QAnon-supporting candidate JR Majewski in a congressional primary on Tuesday — that much of the Republican Party remains all-in in its embrace of Trump and his authoritarian-populist politics.
No one was calling the Democratic primary a test of Biden’s strength, but for what it is worth, Rep. Shontel M. Brown, a candidate the sitting president endorsed for re-election to the House of Representatives, fended off a challenge from high- profile Bernie Sanders adviser Nina Turner. Rep. Tim Ryan — a moderate who, like Biden, stresses his working-class background — won the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat over a more left-wing candidate.
In the congressional primaries, Trump’s people won. Biden’s people won. You can call the mid-terms a presidential referendum. In Ohio, you can just call them to rematch.
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