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Five things to watch in the Ohio primaries

Ohio primary voters are heading to the polls Tuesday evening in what could give a first glance of where the two parties stand heading into the November midterms. 

The Buckeye State is holding marquee Senate and gubernatorial contests, as well as high-profile House races, that have seen millions of dollars spent and countless amounts of ink spilled trying to sway and analyze where the candidates stand. 

The Senate race features a noncompetitive Democratic primary but a GOP nominating contest that has emerged as one of the bloodiest in the country thus far. That race includes “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, businessman Mike Gibbons, former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken and state Sen. Matt Dolan. 

The GOP gubernatorial primary is also shaping up to be a key gauge of how deep the sentiment against coronavirus restrictions has seeped. In that race, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is running for a second term against a handful of populist challengers. 

A top House rematch is also setting the stage to show which flank of the Democratic Party is ascendant as progressives and centrists continue to butt heads. 

Here are five things to watch Tuesday night in Ohio. 

Does Trump clinch a victory? 

Former President Trump threw his support behind Vance in mid-April, providing an eleventh-hour jolt that sent the author to the top of the polls. 

Vance had been mired in the middle of the primary pack for months before Trump’s endorsement, and a victory would likely be largely credited to the former president’s imprimatur. However, polls have consistently shown a high number of undecided voters, and the primary is still up for grabs. 

Vance’s opponents have continuously pointed to past comments he made that were critical of Trump, though the former president himself said he had moved beyond those remarks in his endorsement statement. 

A Vance win would bolster Trump’s argument that he is the de facto leader of the GOP and show that his support is enough to lift a candidate by several points and drag them over the finish line. 

A loss, meanwhile, would likely spark questions over Trump’s remaining sway — but even that scenario would still show his lingering power. 

Every other major candidate besides Dolan has looked to embrace Trump, allowing the former president to claim a win for his agenda should nearly any one of the primary candidates win.  

And on top of that, operatives in Ohio say that if Vance loses, it would likely be due to the public relations blitz his opponents waged casting him as a “never Trumper” — underscoring how dearly GOP voters prize loyalty to Trump. 

“I think J.D.’s gonna win in the end. But if he did lose, the reason he would lose is because too many voters wrongly still believed he was a ‘Never Trumper.’ He’s either going to win because of Trump, or he’s going to lose because of Trump,” one Trump World source who’s supporting Vance told The Hill last month. “But Trump wins either way, because win or lose … this just shows the power that Trump has with Republican voters.”  

How tight is the Senate GOP primary? 

Even with Trump’s endorsement, the Senate GOP primary is set for a photo finish. 

Fox News poll released last week showed Vance up just 5 points over Mandel and that 25 percent of likely GOP primary voters were undecided. 

Another spate of polling also showed Dolan, the only candidate not to embrace Trump, also surging, though few polls have shown him in the lead. 

Taken together, the surveys show a race with Vance as the front-runner but where other candidates could still conceivably pull out a win. 

Mandel, for his part, went on a campaign blitz in the final days of the primary, continuing his strategy of appealing directly to evangelical voters at churches in a bid to motivate one of the strongest wings of the GOP. 

The ultimate winner of the primary will likely be bloodied regardless of who wins and is expected to run against Rep. Tim Ryan (D) in the general election. 

Does DeWine repel populist opposition? 

DeWine is running for a second term against a handful of populist challengers who have centered their campaigns around the idea that the longtime Ohio public servant is no longer in step with the modern GOP. 

A traditional conservative who dedicated much of his adult life to public service, DeWine has served in both chambers of Congress and as Ohio’s attorney general, lieutenant governor and ultimately governor.  

However, he faced a wave of pushback over early coronavirus restrictions and mandates, including for masks and other social distancing measures – a cornerstone of his rivals’ campaigns. 

“Mike DeWine has ‘no regrets’ about his lockdowns. On May 3rd, we can hold him accountable for his lockdowns,” former Rep. Jim Renacci said last week in a Twitter post that included a new ad hitting DeWine over his COVID-19 restrictions. 

DeWine has pivoted by tacking right on some issues, including by sending Ohio Highway Patrol troopers to the southern border, and is benefiting from a slate of candidates splitting the anti-establishment vote, including Renacci, restaurateur Joe Blystone and former state Rep. Ron Hood.  

Yet should DeWine lose, it could provide an indication of just how long voters’ memories are of COVID-19 restrictions that split the nation in the pandemic’s early days but have been gone for several months. 

What is turnout like for both parties? 

Tuesday’s races will be among the first opportunities of the thick of primary season to get an estimate of what turnout will be like later this year. 

The Senate Democratic primary is not particularly competitive, and the Democratic gubernatorial primary has not gotten as much attention, but the contests could tell just how enthused GOP voters are. 

Low turnout could indicate that a red wave this November may not rise as high as Democrats fear — but a spike in turnout could foreshadow huge enthusiasm that sends Republicans to the polls in droves in November. 

Already, the nation has an indication of high enthusiasm among Republicans lingering from 2020 and a drop among Democrats from two years ago. 

Nearly 11.5 percent of registered Republican voters voted in Texas’s primaries earlier this year, a drop from 12.4 percent in the 2020 primaries. But only 6.3 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots – a nosedive from 12.9 percent from two years ago. 

Should that trend continue on Tuesday in Ohio, it would represent more evidence that Democrats are heading into a bruising cycle this year. 

How do progressives do in the Brown-Turner rematch? 

Lower down on the ballot, Ohio is also hosting one of the most prominent Democratic House primaries in the country, featuring a rematch between Rep. Shontel Brown and progressive activist and former state Sen. Nina Turner. 

The two faced off in a special primary election in August, when Brown won the nomination in the race to replace former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D), who left her seat to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

Last year’s primary was one of the most divisive fought by Democrats, with Brown enjoying the support of moderates like House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Turner boasting the support of progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

During that campaign, Brown stayed largely within the Democratic mainstream, while Turner turned up the heat on Democratic leaders, criticizing Clyburn and comparing voting for Biden with eating a pile of excrement. 

In a sign of how important the race again is for Democrats, Clyburn traveled to Ohio over the weekend to campaign with Brown and suggested that this year’s race is being fought largely over the same battle lines – setting the rematch up to be a test of how far progressives can go in distancing themselves from the establishment both ideologically and personally. 

“Shontel made it very clear that she was a Joe Biden supporter,” Clyburn told The Hill last week, “and her opponent made it very clear that she was a Joe Biden opponent.” 

Hanna Trudo contributed to this report 

Tags Donald Trump Jane Timken JD Vance josh mandel Matt Dolan Matt Dolan Mike DeWine Mike DeWine Ohio Senate primary

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