Why the political environment is outweighing candidate strength — for now

The results of Tuesday’s Ohio primary were seismic: Republicans nominated J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author who remade himself as a conservative provocateur to run for an open Senate seat. And in one of the most competitive congressional districts in the nation, they nominated a fringe figure who’s flirted with QAnon and other bizarre conspiracy theories.

But they didn’t alter the trajectory of the general election.

Republicans are still poised to hold both statewide races in Ohio, and they could make gains at the congressional level there and in neighboring Indiana, which also held its primaries this week.

Those are the latest updates to POLITICO’s Election Forecast, which is tracking how the primaries are affecting both parties’ prospects in November.

By one measure, Vance’s victory in the crowded race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman was underwhelming: He won just 32 percent of the vote, meaning more than 2 of 3 Republican primary voters chose another candidate.

But despite the enmity that characterized the most expensive 2022 primary so far, the other four major GOP candidates quickly coalesced behind Vance, who is also set to appear with former President Donald Trump as part of a victory lap in western Pennsylvania later Friday.

That party unity, combined with Ohio’s lurch to the right — it voted for Trump by 8 percentage points in 2020, even as the then-president lost the national popular vote by 4 points — make Vance the heavy favorite against Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee. The two men will be fighting over the working-class mantle, and the question of whether Ryan’s form of liberal populism can claw back voters Democrats have lost over the past decade will be an interesting test case. But the race is staying in POLITICO’s Likely Republican category for now.

Like Vance, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also failed to win a majority of votes in the GOP primary on Tuesday, pulling in 48 percent but coasting to renomination as his two main conservative challengers split a combined 50 percent. DeWine has bigger base problems than Vance: Vance was a first-time candidate in a crowded race, while DeWine’s name has appeared on a statewide ballot nine times dating back to 1990.

The challenge for Democratic nominee Nan Whaley, the former Dayton mayor: not only keeping Democrats and independents from defecting to DeWine, but also hoping the GOP incumbent loses support from Republicans who believe DeWine imposed too many restrictions on civic and economic activity to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s a steep climb. The state’s most conservative voters may not be in love with DeWine — but they are enthusiastic about voting in November. The race remains Likely Republican.

At the congressional level, Ohio has two Toss Up races. In the Cincinnati-based 1st District, both GOP Rep. Steve Chabot and Democrat Greg Landsman were unopposed in their primaries. But in the redrawn 9th District — in the state’s northwest corner, including Toledo — Republicans nominated J.R. Majewski to face Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.

Majewski flew under the radar for most of the campaign. He spent far less on advertising ($6,000) than state Sen. Theresa Gavarone ($74,000, though she had roughly $500,000 in outside groups advertising on her behalf) and state Rep. Craig Riedel ($397,000), according to AdImpact.

Establishment Republicans wanted Gavarone — she had backing from the political arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership and Winning for Women, while Riedel campaigned as a more loyal Trump supporter. But while the two supposed frontrunners and their allies attacked each other, they mostly ignored Majewski, who only had $57,000 in the bank as of mid-April and raised money to send a group to the Washington rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, among other significant red flags in his oppo file.

So why is the race staying in our Toss Up category? Because, after redistricting, it’s a district Trump won by 3 points — and, in this political environment, Kaptur has work to do to win over voters skeptical of Democrats, even against a flawed opponent. If Republicans had nominated Gavarone, the race may have moved to Lean Republican.

Two other Ohio congressional races to watch: Max Miller, who brought both a Trump endorsement and personal baggage to his bid in the Likely Republican 7th District, easily won Tuesday’s primary. In a seat Trump carried by double digits, it’s hard to see him losing.

And attorney Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, another Trump endorsee, narrowly prevailed in the Lean Republican 13th District. Gilbert will face state Rep. Emilia Sykes, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, in the general election. Now-President Joe Biden won the seat narrowly in 2020, but Sykes will need an improvement in the political environment for Democrats to nudge this one into the Toss Up category.

Indiana only has one competitive House race: the 1st District in Northwest Indiana. Freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan will face Jennifer-Ruth Green, an Air Force veteran, in the general election.

Biden carried Mrvan’s district by 9 points, though Mrvan won his election by nearly twice that margin. That came against an underfunded, perennial candidate. Green will provide a much stiffer test, though we’re leaving the race as Lean Democratic for now.

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