For the past several months the most sought after prize in the Republican Party has been the endorsement of the 45th President of the United States. Tonight, the results of the Ohio Senate Republican primary are Exhibit A as to why.
A few months ago, JD Vance’s campaign looked like it was dead in the water. Even after raising tens of millions from conservative donors, he badly trailed then-frontrunner Josh Mandel in the polls. Vance, who had once called himself a “never-Trump guy,” endured near-daily humiliation as he awkwardly and ostentatiously adopted the artifice of a MAGA Republican in order to appeal to the former president’s rabid base.
But Vance’s efforts to cultivate Trump and win his support ultimately paid off. Three weeks ago the stamp of approval came from Trump—and the rest was history.
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According to an Ohio Republican political strategist I spoke with, the impact of the former president’s endorsement was immediate. The poll numbers in the Senate primary race shifted almost immediately in Vance’s favor.
“If he wins,” the strategist told me earlier on Tuesday, it will be “100 percent” because of Trump’s backing. “It was all about him,” he said, referring to the former president.
With a background in venture capital, a degree from Yale Law School, a spell living in San Francisco, and as the author of “Hillbilly Elegy”—a tough, largely unsentimental look at his traumatic upbringing in Appalachia—Vance was always an odd fit in the MAGA roster of heroes.
In the book, Vance often offered his most pointed criticism of those he grew up with—the same people who are among Trump’s most fervent backers. He spoke candidly of their drug addictions (including his mother, a recovering heroin addict) and their descents into despair and lethargy.
Now, however, he saves his criticism for the usual retinue of tech companies, government bureaucrats, and shadowy liberal elites—all of whom the right has deemed responsible for the plight of the white-working class.
Like Trump, Vance has wholeheartedly embraced the populist rhetoric and resentment-filled politics of the modern GOP.
As Vance declared at a Trump rally last week: “You cannot have a real country if a bunch of corrupt scumbags who take their marching orders from the Communist Chinese tell us what we’re allowed to say and how we’re allowed to say it .”
And as his primary opponents constantly tried to remind Republican voters, it wasn’t long ago that Vance was a harsh critic of Trump. Back in 2016, he called him “reprehensible” and an “idiot” and compared him to a drug that offered his supporters an “easy escape from the pain.” Now he says Trump is “the best president of my lifetime”—and all has been forgiven.
It’s easy to dismiss Vance’s about-face as peak political hypocrisy, even if it’s completely true. But, there’s little doubt that the decision to hook his wagon to Trump’s star was smart politics.
After tonight, Vance is the clear frontrunner in the general election, where he’ll face off against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. It’s a terrible political environment for Democrats and Ohio is leaning red, so it’s hard to see how Ryan prevails in November.
For his fellow Republicans, the message from Vance’s victory is clear: in the modern GOP, there is no upside in being seen as anything other than a Trump acolyte. Though truth be told, most of them seemed to already know that. Trump’s track record this cycle is 55-0 in endorsements and the Ohio race was defined by a disquieting effort of virtually all the candidates to suck up to Trump in order to win his coveted endorsement.
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In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Trump gave his endorsement to Dr. Mehmet Oz. But that didn’t stop every candidate in a recent GOP debate from trying to wrap themselves in Trump’s MAGA mantle.
A year-and-a-half ago one could still imagine a post-Trump GOP. With the former president sequestered in Mar-a-Lago following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, perhaps the party would take its first tentative steps out of the MAGA bubble. Instead, Trump’s control over the party—and the willingness of GOP leaders to bend to his will—might be more solid than ever.
Surely, between now and November, at least a few of Trump-endorsed candidates will lose a contested Republican primary. But make no mistake, between now and next fall every one of them will be trying to follow the same playbook as JD Vance.
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