WASHINGTON - Donald Trump proved again Tuesday he remains the strongest political force within the Republican Party as he fueled a primary victory by new U.S. Senate nominee J.D. Vance.
The specific strength of his personal endorsement, however, remains open to question.
Vance won a crowded primary with a little more than 32% of the vote as of late Tuesday, but four other candidates also received good chunks of Trump voters - including Matt Dolan, the businessman who shunned the former president's endorsement and had urged the party to move past his false claims of election fraud in 2020.
Dolan appeared headed for a third place finish with around 23% of the vote, just behind former state treasurer Josh Mandel, who continued to claim Trump's mantle even after the ex-president endorsed Vance in mid-April.
"Trump's endorsement is important but not always decisive," said Henry Olsen, an election analysts and senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Olsen estimated the value of Trump's endorsement at 10-15 percentage points, more than enough to lift Vance over a crowded field of like-minded Republicans.
In claiming victory before supporters who gathered in Cincinnati, Vance referred to Trump as "the 45th," the number of his presidency. During his speech, the newly minted Senate nominee also carried a piece of paper filled with the names of all the people he wanted to thank.
The largest name written: TRUMP.
Now Trump faces more tests of his political strength in upcoming Republican primaries in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia.
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'100% responsible" for Vance's Win
During the Ohio primary, Vance did not lead a single poll and was often mired in fourth place before Trump endorsed him on April 15. Since then, the author and venture capitalist making his first political race zoomed past veteran Ohio Republicans who also vied for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Vance was once a fierce Trump critic, referring to himself as a "never Trumper." But he recalibrated as he contemplated a political career, and Trump looked beyond his past comments in giving his endorsement.
Trump is "100% responsible for Vance winning," said Mike Hartley, an Ohio-based GOP political consultant who was not involved in the race. "Vance was stuck. He was stuck pre-endorsement and really had no options on how to break out and then the endorsement came. He went on a two-week surge right at the end."
Polling showed a significant chunk of undecided voters in the runup to Election Day that Hartley said fell into two groups: one that was waiting for Trump's endorsement while the other was looking for an alternative.
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About two-thirds of those undecided voters broke for Vance, Hartley said, and the rest gravitated toward Dolan, the least Trump-like candidate.
A preliminary analysis also showed that Vance did better on Election Day itself. He pulled a lower percentage among early votes, many of which were cast before Trump made his endorsement on April 15.
Dolan did well without Trump
Gunner Ramer, political director for an anti-Trump organization called the Republican Accountability Project, said Trump "propelled J.D. Vance to victory, without a doubt." He added that the Ohio race also reflected the views of GOP members who hope that Trump does not seek the presidency again in 2024.
"There is an anti-Trump contingent in the Republican Party," Ramer said. "However, it's not a majority of Republican voters. It's about a fifth - and that is what Matt Dolan pulled in tonight."
The other Senate candidates in Ohio - including Mandel, investment banker Mike Gibbons and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken - all ran on full-bore Trump platforms.
Dolan's surge at the end of the race seemed to bother Trump, to the point where he issued a public attack on the Cleveland area businessman - focusing on the fact that his family changed the nickname of the baseball team it owns.
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"Anybody who changes the name of the 'storied' Cleveland Indians (from 1916), an original baseball franchise, to the Cleveland Guardians, is not fit to serve in the United States Senate," Trump said last week.
Trump aired a similar attack during an appearance on a local talk radio station in Ohio on Tuesday. Even so, Dolan said he supported many of the same policies Trump championed in the White House.
Ryan vs. Vance - and Trump
This fall, Ohio will demonstrate the strength - or the weakness - of a Trump endorsement in a general election race against a well-funded Democrat, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.
Ryan is already planning to use Trump's bombastic persona and conservative policies as issues in his race against Vance. This past week, Ryan mocked Trump for mangling the name of his preferred candidate in Ohio, calling him "J.D. Mandel."
"Donald Trump can't even remember which one of my GOP opponents he endorsed," Ryan tweeted. "To be fair, it's easy to get them mixed up - they're all the same out-of-touch millionaire extremists."
The fall Senate race in Ohio may turn on "how many Dolan-to-Ryan" voters exist, Ramer said.
Dolan, meanwhile, endorsed Vance shortly after conceding the race, saying on Twitter: "JD Vance and I have debated our differences, and in this hard fought campaign he was successful. Just as I will never quit fighting for Ohio, I now pledge to unite our party and endorse JD Vance to be our next U.S. Senator."
Vance also praised Dolan's issues-based campaign during a victory speech on Tuesday night in which he tried to appeal to Republicans who cast ballots for his opponents in the crowded primary.
The other GOP candidates also endorsed Vance.
A Busy May for Trump
The Ohio Republican primary kicked off a series of races featuring Trump and his endorsements.
Next week brings a gubernatorial primary in Nebraska. Trump's candidate, Charles Herbster, is beset by allegations that he touched and kissed women without their consent, accusations he has denied.
On May 17, Trump-backed celebrity candidate Mehmet Oz faces off against businessman David McCormick. As in Ohio, polls show a close race in a contest with at least three other GOP candidates who could garner more than 10% of the vote.
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North Carolina also has a big Senate primary on May 17, and Trump's candidate is expected to do well. Rep. Ted Budd, once a little-known congressman, has soared to the top of the polls with the ex-president's backing.
Another big test for Trump comes May 24, with a governor's race in Georgia.
Incumbent Brian Kemp, R-Ga., targeted by Trump for his refusal to help the then-president overturn election results in the Peach State, has a double-digit lead over Trump-backed challenger David Perdue, according to the average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Some polls, however, put Kemp at just under the 50% total he would need to avoid a runoff with Perdue. That sets up the prospect of a one-on-one match-up in which the Trump endorsement would be the major issue.
Throughout the summer, Trump will try to knock off House Republicans who voted to impeach him over the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. The highest profile race involves Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who faces Trump-backed attorney Harriet Hageman in a primary scheduled for Aug 16.
There are signs Trump's sway in the party is declining, but they are on the margins.
A Washington Post/ABC Poll released Tuesday said 60% of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters say the party should follow Trump, while 34% said Republican leaders should go in a different direction.
That is down from marks Trump made during his presidency. As the Post pointed out, a 2018 Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 76% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said the party should follow Trump's lead.
Contributing: Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Dan Horn
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump won Ohio for J.D. Vance, moves on to Penn, NC, Georgia