Senate Republicans are privately rooting for former President Trump to fail in Ohio and wouldn’t be at all disappointed if someone other than his endorsed candidate, J.D. Vance, wins the state’s Senate Republican primary Tuesday.
Not all Senate Republicans are rooting for someone other than Vance to win the primary. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for example, is an outspoken advocate for Vance, a fellow Yale Law School graduate.
But GOP lawmakers see the wide-open race as a key test of Trump’s political influence in Republican primaries and in next year’s Senate GOP conference, which will have a different flavor after the retirements of Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
Burr and Toomey voted last year to convict Trump on an impeachment charge of inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“If he doesn’t win, we will exploit that for everything it’s worth and say the Trump endorsement isn’t the be-all, end-all it once was and maybe now we can get some breathing room from the craziness,” said a senior Senate GOP aide, who said that 70 percent of Senate Republicans share this sentiment, though only few of them would dare to say so publicly.
One Republican senator following the race said some of his colleagues are rooting for anyone but the Trump-backed candidate to win.
“Some feel that way,” the senator acknowledged but also noted that Hawley has endorsed Vance.
Hawley is the only Senate endorsement listed on Vance’s website.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who is critical of Trump from time to time and has drawn the former president’s wrath as a result, said he’ll be interested to read the press coverage if Trump’s favored candidate doesn’t win.
“You’re all the experts. You’ll be interpreting that,” he told a group of reporters when asked what Vance losing would mean about Trump’s effort to portray himself as a kingmaker in GOP primaries. “If Vance doesn’t pull through, I’ll look forward to reading your interpretations the day after.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is eyeing a presidential run in 2024, campaigned for Vance’s opponent, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, over the weekend.
Cruz on Tuesday praised Mandel as “a strong candidate.”
“My philosophy on endorsements is I look for the strongest conservative who can win, and I spent two days this weekend campaigning with Josh in Ohio. We had packed crowds everywhere we went. There was enormous enthusiasm on the ground, but it’s going to depend on turnout [Tuesday] and who shows up to vote,” he said.
Cruz said he doesn’t think a Vance loss would mean Trump is losing his grip on the GOP but predicted that “I’m sure the press will write it up that way.”
Rep. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another prominent conservative with presidential ambitions, is backing businessman Mike Gibbons in the race.
Gibbons was the front-runner for a while but started slumping in the polls after Trump endorsed Vance.
Republican aides and strategists, however, say if Trump’s endorsement fails to produce the winner in Ohio, it will raise doubts about his political strength heading into next year.
A second Republican aide said it “will be fun to watch” if a non-Trump-backed candidate wins the Ohio Senate primary and predicted that if Matt Dolan wins, it will create a buzz among Senate Republicans. Dolan, who has surged to third place, is running as a traditional conservative and hasn’t sought Trump’s endorsement.
“I’d love it if that happens,” the source said of a possible Dolan upset.
An average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics on Monday showed Vance with a narrow 3.5 percent lead.
A Republican Trafalgar Group poll conducted from April 29 to May 1 showed Vance leading with 26 percent support, followed by Dolan with 22 percent, Mandel with 21 percent and Gibbons with 13 percent.
There are also questions about how closely Trump is even following the race.
Trump flubbed Vance’s name during a rally in Nebraska on Sunday, getting him mixed up with Mandel.
“We’ve endorsed … J.P., right?” Trump said. “J.D. Mandel. And he’s doing great.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) celebrated what he thought was Trump’s political demise after he appeared to incite a crowd of supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to stall the certification of President Biden’s victory.
McConnell reportedly felt “exhilarated” about Trump’s apparent political implosion, telling a reporter for The New York Times that he thought Trump had effectively “put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” according to a new book by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns.
Instead, Trump has remained in the political spotlight and maintained his grip on the Republican Party.
But that influence will be questioned if Vance, whom Trump endorsed on April 15, falls short of victory, GOP strategists say.
“It gives us a little bit of a sneak peak at 2024. Perhaps in January and February of 2021, the Republican establishment assumed that if Trump got into the [White House] race he would have an open path to the presidency, and I don’t think anybody thinks that anymore. Trump is going to have a significant primary with multiple candidates running against him,” said Matt Dole, a GOP political consultant based in Ohio.
“The party will not naturally coalesce behind Trump. He’s going to have to work for it,” he added.
Dole predicts that if Vance wins, Trump will tout his role in the race to build political momentum heading into the next election cycle.
Under this scenario, “the messaging is likely that Trump has a pretty good hold on the party in Ohio in 2022,” he said.
But he noted, “Let’s not forget that J.D. Vance raised a boatload of money into his campaign and raised a boatload of money into a super PAC that played a significant role in this race.”
“It wasn’t all Trump. Peter Thiel deserves a little bit of the credit if Vance wins as well,” he said, referring to the conservative mega-donor, who has funneled at least $13.5 million into a pro-Vance super PAC, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Justin Buchler, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said Trump’s impact on Vance’s surge in the polls has been overstated because his numbers started ticking up before Trump made his endorsement.
A Trafalgar Group poll conducted among GOP primary voters on April 13 and April 14, before Trump made his endorsement public, showed Vance in second place with 22.6 percent support, trailing then-front-runner Mandel by 5 points.
Buchler said Trump’s endorsements in Senate primaries “keeps him politically active and the center of the Republican universe.”
“What’s interesting and puzzling to me is how frequently he has missed the mark with his endorsements,” he said. “If he can be a kingmaker or at least be perceived as a kingmaker then it leaves him as the one in charge of the Republican Party. What’s been fascinated to me empirically is that the party base ignores the failures. I don’t know why that is.”