Former President Donald Trump may have been speaking for a lot of Ohio voters on Sunday when he twice botched the name of the candidate he’s endorsed for Senate there.
That’s because it’s been hard to keep all the characters — and drama — straight as the crowded, ugly race to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has raged for more than a year, filled with brutal attack ads, personal sniping, wild swings in the polls and even a near-physical confrontation between two of the candidates.
But it isn’t the only marquee contest on the ballot. Ohio’s Republican governor is also trying to beat back challengers on his right flank, and there’s the possibility of significant upheaval at the congressional level after a messy redistricting process.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, Republicans are picking congressional nominees in two big races that reveal the party’s post-Trump cleavages: One will face a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, and the other will be poised to win a safe seat held by a retiring GOP member.
Tuesday’s primaries serve as one of the first salvos in this year’s midterms — and the nominees in key races will shape the trajectory of the general election. POLITICO has rated the contests already, but those predictions could shift based on the results of Tuesday’s primaries.
Here are seven things I’m watching for as the votes are tallied.
The Ohio Senate pileup
Ohio is the nation’s most expensive 2022 election so far, with candidates shelling out nearly $70 million on advertising. Most of that spending is in the GOP primary, and there’s little doubt why: Our rating of this race is “Likely Republican,” so the nominee crowned in Tuesday’s vote will be the heavy favorite in November.
Though Trump flubbed his name at a rally on Sunday in Nebraska, J.D. Vance has the late momentum, thanks to the former president’s backing. But the closing days of the race have also seen state Sen. Matt Dolan and former state Treasurer Josh Mandel claim some signs of ticking up, and the result sets up as a major test of Trump’s influence in the party.
Many of the candidates can claim roots in the Cleveland area: Dolan’s state Senate district is based in Cuyahoga County, but so did Mandel’s old state House district. Self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons is also a fixture of the Cleveland community.
Vance isn’t one of them: He currently lives in Cincinnati and grew up in nearby Middletown. He could run up the score in southwest counties like Hamilton, Butler and Warren.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan faces a liberal primary opponent on Tuesday, former congressional candidate Morgan Harper. Ryan has been stockpiling money for the general election while the Republicans fight it out in their primary, but Ohio’s swing to the right and national headwinds make his general election prospects bleak.
DeWine defusing conservative frustration
Given his looming presence in the Senate contest, Trump’s absence from the governor’s race is striking. When GOP Gov. Mike DeWine congratulated his former Senate colleague, Joe Biden, on winning the 2020 election, Trump lashed out and threatened to back a primary challenger.
That never happened — even though former Rep. Jim Renacci, whom Trump-endorsed in an unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid, is DeWine’s most notable primary challenger. That Trump never weighed in is seen as a sign of DeWine’s position — and the limits of Trump’s post-2020 revenge tour.
A bigger problem for DeWine’s opponents on the right, who mostly fault the incumbent for his efforts to contain the coronavirus, is that Renacci is sharing the ballot with another hopeful, businessman Joe Blystone. In a Fox News poll released last week, Renacci (23 percent) and Blystone (19 percent) combined to tie DeWine’s 43 percent support, but by splitting the anti-DeWine vote roughly evenly, they are giving the incumbent a clear path to renomination.
Democrats have their own primary between two mayors: Dayton’s Nan Whaley and Cincinnati’s John Cranley. Whaley has the backing of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List, while Cranley has racked up some local endorsements. Either Democrat would be a heavy underdog against DeWine — which is why POLITICO rates the race as “Likely Republican” — but the party may have a better chance if the incumbent is unexpectedly ousted Tuesday.
Another Trump acolyte in Congress
Ohio’s turbulent congressional redistricting process — Republicans’ first map was thrown out by the GOP-majority state Supreme Court, and the second one is still undergoing a protracted review — had forced former Trump aide Max Miller, who was already running for Congress with his former boss’ endorsement, into a clash with a House incumbent.
But with just weeks to go until the primary — and after the ballots with his name on it had already been printed — GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs announced he was retiring. Votes cast for him won’t be tallied, since he’s withdrawn, according to state law.
For Gibbs’ sudden reconsideration, he got the Trump-era GOP’s version of the gold watch: “Thank you for your service, Bob — a job well done!” Trump wrote in a statement issued about an hour after Gibbs made his decision public.
Meanwhile, Miller — whose relationship with another Trump White House alum, ex-girlfriend Stephanie Grisham, reportedly ended with a violent encounter — is likely headed to Congress. POLITICO rates the redrawn 7th District as “Likely Republican.”
Establishment strikes back
There’s one “Toss Up” House district in Ohio: Republican mapmakers tweaked Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s Toledo-based 9th District to become redder, imperiling the House’s longest-serving woman.
But first Republicans have to pick their candidate, with two state legislators leading the field. State Sen. Theresa Gavarone has outraised state Rep. Craig Riedel and has powerful allies, like Defending Main Street PAC and Winning for Women, a group that seeks to increase the ranks of GOP women in elected office.
But Riedel is seeking to cast Gavarone as insufficiently conservative. “Theresa Gavarone hates Donald Trump,” his latest TV ad says, citing her support of efforts to make it easier to vote during the coronavirus pandemic and accusing her of “calling Trump’s message ‘disgusting’ and ‘offensive.’” (Small citations on the bottom of the screen indicate Gavarone was referring to Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women on the “Access Hollywood” tape, which was released about a month before the 2016 election.)
But while Gavarone has establishment support, her allies’ playbook for taking down Riedel borrows from a right-wing playbook. Riedel “supports releasing violent criminals back on our streets before trial,” says an ad from Defending Main Street PAC, the political arm of the Main Street Partnership, an establishment GOP group. The ad goes on to slam Riedel’s co-sponsorship of a bipartisan bail reform bill in the state legislature as in lockstep with “Black Lives Matter,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whom the narrator erroneously calls a “communist.”
The winner of the primary will face Kaptur in November in a district Trump carried narrowly in 2020.
The left tries again in Cleveland
Rep. Shontel Brown’s victory over Nina Turner in a 2021 special election for Congress was widely seen as a victory for the Biden wing of the Democratic Party over the progressive left. But nine months later, the rematch in Ohio’s 11th District is taking place in a different political world.
On Brown’s side of the ledger: She’s been an incumbent for about six months since winning the special election last November. She’s outraised Turner by about $150,000 since the first of the year, and she has the support of numerous outside groups, including a cryptocurrency-linked super PAC roiling Democratic politics lately.
Turner, on the other hand, hasn’t seen the kind of outside support that rallied to aid the former Sanders campaign co-chair had last summer, when she lost to Brown by 6 percentage points. But Brown’s enthusiastic embrace of Biden might not be the overwhelming asset it was in early August, when the last primary was held — and before Biden’s tumble in the polls later that month.
In a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted in the days before the Aug. 3, 2021 special election primary, Biden had a 50 percent approval rating, including 90 percent among self-identified Democratic voters. In the most recent poll, conducted April 22-25, Biden’s approval rating was just 42 percent, and 82 percent among Democrats.
Whichever Democrat wins the primary is a shoo-in come November: POLITICO rates the district, which voted for Biden by nearly 60 points, as “Solid Democratic.” But a Turner upset on Tuesday would suggest that Democratic dissatisfaction with Biden — and his inability (or unwillingness) to deliver on some of the left’s biggest priorities — is deeper than previously thought.
An emerging battlefield
Freshman Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.) replaced longtime Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) in his Northwest Indiana district in the last election, but his 57 percent vote share was a warning sign for Democrats.
It matched Visclosky’s lowest vote share in his 18 successful election campaigns (the 1994 GOP wave election) — and, at the same time, Trump surged to capture 45 percent of the presidential vote in the district, after his 41 percent in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s 37 percent in 2012.
The Rust Belt district is home to distressed towns like Gary and Hammond — places where Republicans have made gains in recent years. And some GOP strategists also think the party is benefiting from an influx of political refugees crossing the border from Illinois, seeking lower taxes and more conservative governance.
The two leading GOP candidates, Air Force reservist Jennifer-Ruth Green and former La Porte Mayor and Navy veteran Blair Milo, fit the party’s recent recruiting profile. Both are women. Both are veterans who deployed to the Middle East. Green is African American.
Both would be compelling candidates against Mrvan in a race that POLITICO has rated as “Lean Democratic.” But also on the primary ballot is perennial candidate Mark Leyva, who has repeatedly lost by double digits in this district.
Safe-seat super PAC battle
On the opposite side of Indiana, in its southeastern corner, is an open seat race for a “Solid Republican” district, that has seen outside spending flooding the Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky., media markets.
Army veteran Stu Barnes-Israel has a super PAC that’s spent more than $900,000 on his campaign — though it won’t be required to disclose its funding until later this month. Former state Sen. Erin Houchin is backed by American Dream Federal Action, a crypto-linked super PAC that’s also spending to support other establishment Republicans facing primary challengers on their right, like Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Then there’s former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.), who ran against former Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) in five consecutive elections. (Hill beat Sodrel in 2002, 2006 and 2008. Sodrel won a single term when he beat Hill in 2004, and he finished third in a three-way GOP primary in 2010.)
Sodrel, a trucking company executive whose campaign logo is plastered on tractor-trailers strategically placed in local parking lots, is back for yet another run, and he’s a factor in this race. He’s supported by House Freedom Action, the campaign arm of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, whose latest ad is attacking Houchin. Meanwhile, the pro-Barnes-Israel super PAC, Hoosier Values (which is registered in Houston), is running negative ads slamming Sodrel.
Whichever candidate wins the crowded primary should have no trouble in the general election; POLITICO rates the race as “Solid Republican.” And even a narrow plurality victory could be the ticket to a long congressional career: The retiring three-term incumbent, GOP Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, won his first primary in 2016 with 33 percent of the vote, and now-Sen. Todd Young won the 2010 primary for a similar district with 35 percent of the vote.