In Georgia, Donald Trump’s chosen candidate for governor has run into a brick wall of indifference among Republicans who say they like the former president but couldn’t care less about who he supports.
But in Ohio, Trump’s entry into a fierce contest for the U.S. Senate seat there has had a big impact. Trump endorsed J.D. Vance less than two weeks ago, and the author and venture capitalist has vaulted into the lead in the most recent Fox News poll, which was released Tuesday.
Ohio Republicans who know the state well told Yahoo News that Vance’s surge is real and that it’s all about Trump. The former president’s endorsement “turbocharged” Vance’s campaign, Mike Hartley, a veteran Republican consultant in Ohio politics, said.
“Vance was stuck. ... He really had no prospects of being able to maneuver into the first tier. Then the endorsement came and that’s it,” Hartley said in an interview. “If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Vance.”
Multiple interviews with other Ohio Republicans and sources close to Vance said the same thing, though one key variable is the fact that about a third of voters still say they’re undecided. Terry Casey, a longtime Republican consultant in Ohio, said the latest Fox poll indicated that older, male and more rural voters are likelier to vote than others, which could help Vance.
The Ohio Senate race, and Trump’s endorsement there, could change the way the former president’s influence is perceived inside the Republican Party.
Until the recent Vance surge, political observers both inside and outside the GOP had noted that Trump’s pick for Georgia’s governor, former Sen. David Perdue, is on track to lose against incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
Should Kemp prevail in the May 24 primary, it would be both an embarrassment for Trump and a signal that his hold on the party may be slipping. Trump appeared at a rally at the end of March with Perdue, but since then Kemp’s lead has only increased.
Republican primary elections in Nebraska on May 10 and in Pennsylvania on May 17 will also impact the way that Trump’s influence is viewed by other Republican politicians, especially those who may want to run for president in 2024. But Ohio’s primary comes on May 3, and a Vance victory could persuade many on the right that Trump is still king of the jungle when it comes to the GOP.
The glaring difference between Ohio and Georgia raises an obvious question: Why does a Trump endorsement matter so much in one place and so little in another?
There are a few reasons. For starters, Ohio is a Trumpier state than Georgia is. Trump won Ohio twice, but he lost Georgia in 2020.
That defeat clearly still gnaws at the former president, who continues to baselessly insist that he won Georgia — a claim that inspired his vendetta against Kemp and assisted Democrats’ successful effort to win the state’s two Senate seats in a January 2021 runoff election.
Demographic changes have made Georgia, which had been solidly Republican for decades, more racially diverse and a legitimate swing state. It also has a booming economy and is home to many prosperous suburbs, which have become more Democratic in recent years.
Ohio, meanwhile, has struggled economically and is 80% white, with a population heavy on working-class voters who have moved to the right over the last decade.
But there are other factors at work as well. In Georgia, Kemp is an incumbent who has had four years to cement a reputation among Republicans as a reliable conservative. He’s seen as a winner, and Perdue is coming off a stinging election loss to Democrat Jon Ossoff last year.
Governors in general have a stronger connection to their states than do U.S. senators, who spend much of their time in Washington, D.C. And while it does happen on occasion, it’s rare for an incumbent governor to lose a primary challenge.
Kemp’s identity is more connected to Georgia than it is tied to national politics, and so it is better able to stand on its own against a challenge from the likes of Trump. A majority of Georgia Republicans have told pollsters they still like Trump and even want him to run for president, but they also like Kemp and trust their own judgment about their home state.
Senate races are more nationalized, since their outcome affects the balance of power in Congress. And in Ohio, it’s a Senate race with no incumbent and a wide-open race among several viable candidates, meaning the winner needs to only get by with a plurality of the vote. So Trump’s national brand has landed with more weight because the field has been so scrambled.
Ohio has also moved to the right because of a decline in Democratic organizing, one expert said. The state voted twice for Barack Obama and still has a Democratic senator in Sherrod Brown, an old-school populist who was easily reelected in 2018. But otherwise Ohio Democrats are hurting, said Joseph Valenzano, a professor at the University of Dayton who teaches political communication.
“[Democrats have] forgotten about Ohio, so what you’re seeing is a moderately right-leaning state that appears to be trending more heavily conservative only because the other side lost sight of staying engaged here,” Valenzano told Yahoo News.
That also stands in stark contrast to Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams has been building a grassroots voter mobilization machine for a decade.
As for Trump’s rationale for picking Vance, multiple sources said that it was based on a mix of factors.
Trump watched the debates and thought Vance performed better than the other candidates, a source close to Vance said. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is a staunch Vance supporter, as are many others in the former president’s orbit.
Trump wants candidates who will win in November, said one person familiar with his endorsement process, and makes the final call about who he’ll support.
“He talked to more people than usual and took it very seriously,” the person familiar with the vetting process said of the Vance endorsement.
At the Trump rally in Delaware, Ohio, last weekend, voters told Yahoo News that Trump’s endorsement helped push them to Vance’s corner. But they also noted that Vance was already well known in Ohio because his memoir was turned into a star-studded 2020 movie, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
“You’ve got to remember who Donald Trump is; the power of TV cannot be overestimated for him,” the person familiar with his vetting process said.
Republican observers also suggest that Trump, a habitual Fox News viewer, is looking to keep the network’s primetime anchors on his side ahead of another potential presidential run.
The decision to back Vance, a regular guest on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show, came shortly after Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor and friend of Sean Hannity running for Senate in Pennsylvania.