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Washington Watch: Trump-backed Senate hopeful Vance narrowly ahead in Ohio primary polls as key tests loom for ex-president

Tuesday’s Republican primary in Ohio is heading down to the wire, as voters prepare to hit the polls in a high-profile U.S. Senate contest that’s also seen as a key test for President Donald Trump’s position in the GOP.

The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Trump-backed “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance leading Josh Mandel, an ex–state treasurer, by 3.5 points. The winner of the GOP primary is likely to face U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat with a commanding lead in his party’s Senate primary. The victors of each party’s primary will compete for the seat of retiring Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican.

Ohio’s race is one of a handful of closely watched contests in the run-up to November’s midterm elections — as well as one of the first in which Trump’s endorsement powers will be tested.

With the Senate now split 50-50, with the chamber’s two independents reliably voting with the Democrats, a net gain of just one seat for Republicans would put the chamber back into GOP control. Betting markets see Republicans comfortably winning the House of Representatives in the fall, as well as a solid chance of a GOP takeover of the Senate.

Ryan appears to have his work cut out for him against his eventual GOP opponent as the race is rated “likely Republican” by University of Virginia analysts and “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report.

Trump-watchers, meanwhile, are looking to Ohio and other contests for clues about the ex-president’s future.

“There is a narrative in D.C. that [Trump’s] success in the midterm elections for his endorsements could be an early indicator of (a.) his continued hold on the Republican Party and (b.) whether or not he makes a decision to run in 2024 or not,” says Ed Mills, Washington policy analyst at Raymond James.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to have read-throughs between his primary endorsements as well as how those candidates perform in November, and whether or not he makes a decision on the 2024 election tied to that,” Mills told MarketWatch.

Trump has hinted, but not declared, that he will run for president in 2024. He is nevertheless seen as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination by some measures, outstripping potential competitors including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

From the archives (June 2021): Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota targeting barbs at fellow Republicans viewed as mulling 2024 presidential bids

Plus (February 2022): At CPAC, Trump indicates 2024 presidential intention, again praises Putin

Trump on April 15 endorsed Vance — a venture capitalist who was highly critical of Trump before embracing him — saying in a statement that Vance was “strong on the Border, tough on Crime, understands how to use Taxes and Tariffs to hold China accountable, will fight to break up Big Tech, and has been a warrior on the Rigged and Stolen Presidential Election.”

Trump’s reference to the last election is a continuation of his baseless claims about voter fraud costing him that contest, which Joe Biden won by well more than 7 million votes nationally, leading to the Democrat’s 306-232 win in the Electoral College.

Key Words: ‘We have multiple paths. We control them all. … POTUS must start second term now’: Donald Trump Jr. texts to Mark Meadows just two days after Election Day 2020

Mandel didn’t win the 45th president’s endorsement, but “has campaigned as a strident Trump Republican,” as analysts from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics have noted.

Losses by Trump-backed candidates could take the sheen off of the former president’s influence and encourage others to run for the White House in 2024, says Ben Koltun, director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“If Trump’s endorsement power is perceived as not having that Midas touch anymore — even if the direction of the party remains pro-Trump — does that empower someone who is even Trumpier than Trump, like DeSantis, to not shy away from running for president in 2024?” he asked.

“And I think that’s the risk that maybe Trump has in some of his endorsements falling flat in this election cycle,” Koltun said in an interview.

From the archives (May 2021): ‘Big Lie’ allegiance dividing Republicans into Trump loyalists and a Cheney-Romney-Kinzinger wing

After Ohio, the next test of Trump’s endorsement power will be Pennsylvania’s GOP primary on May 17, in which he is backing physician and “The Dr. Oz Show” star Mehmet Oz over ex–Bridgewater Associates CEO David McCormick. McCormick, who served in the George W. Bush–era Treasury Department, holds a narrow lead in polls.

North Carolina Republicans will also hold their Senate primary on May 17. Trump is backing Rep. Ted Budd in the Tar Heel State’s primary. Budd is leading his nearest opponent, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, by more than 12 points in RealClearPolitics’ average of polls.

Republican Richard Burr, who has held the Senate seat since 2005, is retiring.

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