Buckeye State battle reaches finish line

The Buckeye State has been rapidly moving right for a decade.

Josh Mandel and Jim Renacci signs outside of Crawford County, Ohio. (AJ Kaufman/Alpha News)

The most expensive U.S. Senate race of 2022 finally comes to a head Tuesday in Ohio’s primaries.

J.D. Vance, whose anti-Donald Trump comments from six years ago led to criticism from opponents, received a boost when the former president endorsed him at an April 23 rally.

It completes a startling reversal, which included Vance reportedly groveling before Trump at Mar-a-Lago and now calling him the “greatest president in my lifetime.”

The event north of Columbus last weekend escalated tensions in the nation’s most chaotic primary.

In a recent letter, numerous pro-Trump activists in Ohio called the endorsement a “betrayal,” citing Vance’s past attacks on Trump. One unhappy convention delegate for Trump said it “reeks of the swamp.”

The Club for Growth, a venerable conservative operation that supports former state treasurer Josh Mandel, will continue airing a television ad that emphasizes Vance’s vociferous criticisms of Trump and comments about possibly voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Fewer than three weeks ago in North Carolina, Trump called Club for Growth President David McIntosh a “winner and fighter,” adding that “we are undefeated when we work together.”

After being outside the top three into April, Vance has surged to the lead in a Fox News poll, while RealClearPolitics averages show a dead heat. But the race remains fluid, with State Sen. Matt Dolan now rising, and 25% of likely voters still saying they are undecided.

Until his Senate bid, the southwest Ohio native was most known for “Hillbilly Elegy,” his popular memoir that became a Netflix movie. He’s also received millions from fellow venture capitalist Peter Thiel and support from populist firebrands Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

As for other candidates, a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist recently opined:

“Selling your soul to Donald Trump comes with a no-return policy. So Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel and Jane Timken won’t be able to buy theirs back. The former president played them for fools.”

Mandel’s website and commercials say he is “Pro-God. Pro-Gun. Pro-Trump;” former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken’s website bashes her former governor, John Kasich, as “anti-Trump;” businessman Mike Gibbons’ ads compare his background with Trump’s, while attacking Vance as a celebrity.

Taking the pulse at a diner in Ontario, about halfway between Columbus and Cleveland in a Republican-leaning area, an elderly man told Alpha News, “I like them all, actually, but I want to win in November. That’s what matters.” When asked for an actual choice, he was coy, but his friend said they’re both leaning toward Mandel, whose signs are prominent in Crawford, Morrow and Richland counties.

Another woman said she’s “terribly sad” that current Sen. Rob Portman is retiring. The popular two-term Republican made mincemeat of Democrats in his election and, according to some, ran the best campaign of 2016.

In a progressive enclave on Cleveland’s east side that voted nearly 70% for Joe Biden, a longtime Republican fundraiser told Alpha News he’s sticking with Mandel, despite some reservations.

“I can only hope the real Josh will come out. He was not bat-crazy or conspiratorial in the past, and I gave him a serious amount of money,” the man explained. “So I will dance with the one I brought.”

A father of three near Columbus hopes Gibbons wins because “he’s a businessman, an outsider, smart, and will win. Vance is a performer, not a populist. He and his Yale wife moved to San Francisco and now take big tech money.”

He said his sister in Akron, however, likes Dolan, whom she calls “the only sane candidate.”

A man in a farming town north of Dayton said he “just wants someone who will take the country back” and is deciding between Vance and Mandel.

On the Democratic side, Tim Ryan is expected to secure the nomination. The congressman from Youngstown’s closest challenger is a millennial socialist. Ryan recently argued Republican candidates are “more loyal to a radical, extreme ideology than they are to the people of Ohio.”

But the Buckeye State has been rapidly moving right for a decade. In a place that voted for Barack Obama twice, former Republican Gov. Jon Kasich won a remarkable 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties in 2014, and Trump won 81 two years ago.