J.D. Vance secured Ohio’s Republican US Senate nomination Tuesday not by impressing the voters of Ohio but by winning the favor of one man. Vance was Donald Trump’s candidate, which is all that matters anymore in a Republican Party where Trump’s wish is the electorate’s command.
For Vance, a shameless self-promoter with an ego almost as outsize as that of the former president, his first race for public office has provided a humiliating reminder that it’s Trump’s party. Everyone else is just a hanger-on, pleading for an invite.
In Vance’s case, the invite came late, and only after the desperate candidate had abandoned his past, his values, and his last shred of dignity.
A corporate lawyer and venture capitalist who achieved fame as the author of a lamentable book that purported to tell the story of working-class people in rural America—despite the fact that its author had grown up in a midsize city, graduated from Yale Law School, and spent much of his adult life cavorting with billionaires in northern California—Vance returned to his native Ohio only in 2017. He arrived with political ambitions and began positioning himself as Trump’s “mini-me”: a millionaire populist with a penchant for making the sort of outrageously racist and xenophobic pronouncements that he once condemned his political benefactor for uttering.
It was a pathetic exercise in precisely the sort of political grasping that Vance once claimed to despise. And it got him nowhere in the initial stages of the campaign.
Ohio Republicans showed little interest in Vance’s bid for their party’s nod. After several years of working the circuit of county party dinners and conservative gatherings from Chillicothe to Ashtabula, and even after his former boss (billionaire Peter Thiel) poured more than $10 million into an advertising campaign to pump up his flailing candidacy, Vance was on April 14 polling at just 10 percent, languishing in fifth place among the Republican competition with less than three weeks to go before the primary. Despite his celebrity, despite Thiel’s big money, Vance seemed doomed.
Then, on April 15, Donald Trump endorsed Vance, even though his pick had opposed the former reality-TV star’s 2016 presidential campaign, back in the day when the author was referring to Trump as “a total fraud” and, potentially, “America’s Hitler.” Three other Ohio candidates were begging for Trump’s endorsement, but Vance beat them out by groveling. He scrubbed his Twitter account—deleting anti-Trump tweets such as the one from 2017 that declared, “In 4 years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him the most aggressively”—and went on Fox to expressly apologize for offending the dear leader.
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The contrition tour satisfied Trump. It didn’t matter that the former president barely knew the candidate he was endorsing, or that he would eventually flub his choice’s name when he told a rally crowd in Ohio, “We’ve endorsed—J.P., right? J.D. Mandel, and he’s doing great.”
Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer who was the front-runner in the race at the time that Trump made his endorsement, had tried everything to win the former president’s favor. And for good reason. After Trump chose Vance’s celebrity and groveling over Mandel’s experience and more consistent conservative vision, the race turned. Fast, and hard. So much so that on Tuesday night, when the results were finally tabulated, Vance had defeated Mandel by almost 90,000 votes, and the former statewide official barely scraped into second place.
Such is the power of a Trump endorsement in today’s Republican Party. It can raise a Hillbilly Elegy huckster out of the pack and make him the nominee for a Senate seat once held by John Glenn and Robert Taft Jr.
Vance didn’t win on Tuesday. Trump did.
That’s the reality all the pundits who keep imagining that the former president might be losing his grip on the GOP need to recognize. Trump is the Dr. Frankenstein of the Republican Party. He can resurrect the politically dead. Vance was a loser. Now, he’s a nominee.
Why? Because the Republican Party is no longer “the party of Lincoln,” or even “the party of Reagan.” It is no longer even a political party in any conventional sense. It’s a subsidiary of the Trump Organization—a cult of personality with no conscience, no soul, no purpose except to please its conqueror.
That doesn’t mean that Trump’s endorsed candidates—130, so far—will win every primary race in 2022. His power is greatest in federal contests, especially open-seat races like the one for Ohio’s Senate seat. There may still be some Republican governors who can survive without a Trump endorsement. It’s even possible that Representative Liz Cheney, a neoconservative firebrand who broke with Trump following the insurrection, could win another term in Wyoming. But those are the exceptions to the rule.
And the rule in the contests that are charting the destiny of the Republican Party is that Trump is not just influential. He’s definitional.
In the first primary election, Texas’s in March, every one of the candidates Trump endorsed won their statewide and congressional races. And the same thing happened on Tuesday in the Ohio and Indiana primaries. It was a clean sweep for all 22 of Trump’s picks in the neighboring Great Lakes states.
Trump’s endorsed candidates elbowed aside veteran Republicans all across Ohio. Scandal-plagued former Trump aide Max Miller was nominated in a safely Republican congressional district outside Cleveland. Miller’s campaign had initially targeted US Representative Anthony Gonzalez, a conservative Republican who voted to impeach the former president after the January 6 insurrection. Gonzalez quit a planned reelection campaign rather than face Trump’s wrath. But then, after the state’s redistricting, Miller moved into the district of six-term US Representative Bob Gibbs. Unwilling to run against Trump’s pick, Gibbs followed Gonzalez into retirement.
In a competitive, Republican-leaning district in northeast Ohio, Republican primary voters nominated Trump-endorsed candidate Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a member of the Women for Trump advisory board who in 2016 wrote a column headlined, “Why I’m a Miss USA competitor supporting and inspired by Donald Trump.” In a competitive northwest Ohio district, Republicans rejected a prominent state senator and a state representative in favor of J.R. Majewski, a political newcomer who attended Trump’s January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, mouthed QAnon fantasies, and painted Trump slogans on his 19,000-square-foot front yard.
Majewski, Gilbert, and Miller will run this fall on a Trumped-up Republican ticket with J.D. Mandel, er, Vance, who was saved from the political scrapheap by the man the author once dismissed as “cultural heroin.”