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Why The Attacks On J.D. Vance Were Never Going To Stick

Republican candidates embracing Donald Trump today can’t be held hostage by criticism of him from six years ago.

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Venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance is the new Republican nominee for Senate in Ohio, set to run against Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who is from a blue-collar district in the northeast part of the state, this November.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Vance sought to reunite the party ahead of the fall midterms after a divisive primary ripped through the Ohio GOP among seven candidates vying for an open seat left vacant by retiring Sen. Rob Portman.

“Now, the party that we need to unify to fight Tim Ryan, it’s our Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen. It is the party of the working people all across the state of Ohio, and it needs to fight, and it needs to win,” Vance told supporters gathered in downtown Cincinnati. “Tim Ryan needs to go down, and we’re going to be the party that does it.”

Vance thanked each of his major opponents in the race by name. Most endorsed the Republican nominee against Ryan for the fall contest once Vance was declared the primary winner.

Vance’s victory came as no small consequence of former President Donald Trump’s 11th-hour endorsement, a fact undeniable in the polling that Trump wasted no time to brag about in an afternoon press release. The Save America PAC published a chart below from RealClearPolitics to illustrate how Trump propelled Vance to first from a distant third, although Trump’s endorsement came on the 15th, not the 14th as depicted on the graph.

While swaying undecided voters to Vance’s column, Trump’s support undermined rival candidates’ primary criticism against the Ohio financier highlighting how Vance was an original NeverTrumper with an adoration for Mitt Romney.

In October, the Club for Growth, a powerful Republican Super PAC backing former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, launched ads publicizing Vance’s 2016 criticism of Trump as “noxious,” and “idiot,” and “really outrageous and offensive.” Other candidates capitalized on the comments to depict Vance as a flake throughout the race while he ran on a platform tying himself to Trump.

The prior criticism might have given voters pause until Trump picked a horse in the race, but they failed to stick among Ohio Republicans because the same base underwent nearly the same political transformation from 2016.

Vance’s 180 on Trump is far from unique to the Senate contender now proud to stand in the former president’s shadow in pursuit of high office. In fact, if prior opposition to Trump from 2016 were disqualifying, more than half the Republican Party, including some of Trump’s most prominent supporters today such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, would be guilty, especially in Ohio.

Six years ago, the state was the only one in the nation to back Republican Gov. John Kasich in the crowded GOP presidential primary, and it did so by no small margin. Kasich, a die-hard anti-Trump crusader who endorsed Joe Biden four years later, carried all 66 delegates, winning by 11 points with help from Romney. By 2020, Ohio would back Trump for a second time in the general election, bucking a decades-long trend of no president carrying the Electoral College without the bellwether state since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

A majority of the voters who made Trump president in 2016 didn’t back the Manhattan real estate mogul in the primary. Trump earned nearly 63 million votes in November, and only received 14 million in the entire nomination contest. That means more than 75 percent of those who cast a Trump ballot in 2016 didn’t support his primary bid. In 2020, Trump would get 11 million more votes than he did in the 2016 general, signaling an even greater shift in the public’s attitude from his first run.

Meanwhile, no candidates who complained about Vance’s change of heart that mirrored the transition of the same voters could pass their own self-imposed pro-Trump purity test. Mandel endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before Trump in 2016, and so did businessman Mike Gibbons by way of attending a fundraiser. Weeks after the House voted to impeach Trump a second time last year, former state Republican Party Chair Jane Timken defended a vote in favor by northeast Rep. Anthony Gonzales. Former Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan, who came in third with 23 percent of the vote Tuesday, proudly played the role of the NeverTrump candidate in the race.

Republican candidates embracing Trump today can’t be held hostage by criticism from six years ago, a lifetime in American politics.