MARY TAYLOR has been John Kasich’s lieutenant-governor since he was elected governor of Ohio in 2010. She backed all of his policies loyally, including the expansion of Medicaid and health insurance for the poor, and did not criticise Mr Kasich’s “Never Trump” campaign during his presidential candidacy. Yet when she campaigned to be the Republican candidate for the next governor of Ohio Ms Taylor claimed somewhat improbably that she had not talked to Mr Kasich in a year and that he had not endorsed her. Both claims were untrue, but Ms Taylor calculated she needed to distance herself from the Trump critic she had once served so dutifully, in order to win her party’s nomination for the governorship.
Ms Taylor’s gamble to recast herself as true Trumpian did not pay off. Mike DeWine, the attorney-general backed by the local Republican leadership, won the primary election on May 8th with 60% of the vote. The election was one of numerous primaries for November’s midterm elections in Ohio, where voters also decided on candidates for a Senate seat, 16 congressional seats, four other state-wide offices, including attorney-general and treasurer, judgeships and more. Primaries for the midterms were also held in neighbouring Indiana and West Virginia, both states Mr Trump won with a big margin, as well as in North Carolina. In all four states most Republican candidates tried to portray themselves as staunch followers of Mr Trump. He remains hugely popular with the Republican base, with job approval ratings of 85% or even more, according to some surveys.
Mr DeWine will face Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney-general (pictured) and the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at the November election. Mr Cordray prevailed over Dennis Kucinich, a former congressman and mayor of Cleveland. Like Mr DeWine, Mr Cordray was the dependable establishment candidate, endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, a progressive senator from Massachusetts. Mr Kucinich was the quixotic erstwhile contender for the presidency backed by some fans of Bernie Sanders. A gifted albeit eccentric orator, Mr Kucinich has defended both Mr Trump and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, and was even paid by pro-Assad groups to give speeches.
The victories of Messrs DeWine and Cordray are good news for the leadership of their respective parties; they are more electable than their radical rivals. “They were both careful not to alienate moderate voters,” says Bob Taft, a former governor of Ohio (and great-grandson of William Howard Taft, America’s 27th president). Mr DeWine kept at least some distance from Mr Trump by, for instance, not turning up when the president visited Cleveland, three days before the primaries. At his victory speech Mr DeWine and his running-mate, Jon Husted, made no mention of either Mr Kasich or Mr Trump. Mindful of many Midwestern voters’ attachment to the second amendment, Mr Cordray advocates only moderate gun-control policies. The Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun lobby, endorsed him in both 2006, when he ran for state treasurer, and in 2010, when he ran for attorney-general.
Ohio’s Republican leadership was also relieved that Joe Renacci, a former congressman, convincingly won the primary vote to stand for the Senate seat currently held by Sherrod Brown, a veteran Democrat who counts as one of the more unusual hopefuls for the 2020 presidential elections. Mr Renacci was endorsed by Mr Trump, who tweeted “I need Jim very badly to help our agenda and to keep MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! He will be a fantastic Senator for the Great State of Ohio, and has my full endorsement!” Mr Renacci will still face an uphill battle against Mr Brown, who has been on the scene for 40 years, says Mark Weaver, a political strategist. A supporter of Mr Trump’s trade policies, Mr Brown is popular with blue-collar workers in a state that still owes a big chunk of its GDP to manufacturing.
Meanwhile in Indiana, a state Mr Trump won by 19 percentage points, the local Republican leadership was likewise hoping to get the candidate elected who is most likely to unseat a vulnerable Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly. Three candidates, politically almost identical, were slugging it out in a surprisingly nasty and expensive campaign: Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, both congressmen; and Mike Braun, a wealthy former state legislator. The campaign centred on personal attacks wherein candidates insulted each other with Trump-style nicknames. “Lyin’ Todd” for Mr Rokita, who claimed falsely that he had been endorsed by Mr Trump and Mike Pence, the vice-president. “Missing Messer”, for a congressman who allegedly spends more time in DC than in Indiana, and “Tax-Hike Mike”, because Mr Braun voted for an increase in petrol taxes as a state lawmaker. Mr Braun won, with 41% of the vote. In the sixth congressional district, Greg Pence, the vice-president’s oldest brother, handily won the race for the seat formerly held by the younger Mr Pence.
Primary voters are generally the most motivated and often the most radical voters. “Republican primary voters have grown increasingly suspicious of the party leadership over the past decade,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia. They tend to vote for candidates who are more conservative than their party leaders. Thomas Massie, a libertarian congressman from Kentucky, put it more bluntly. After some soul-searching last year he said he realised primary voters were not voting for his or anyone else’s libertarian ideals, but simply “for the craziest son-of-a-bitch in the race”.
Even so, primary voters tend to be better informed than voters at the general election—and reason seems to have prevailed more often than not in this round, as Republican and Democratic voters alike turned to the more electable candidates. West Virginian Republicans voted for Patrick Morrisey, the state attorney, in their Senate primary, rather than Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who spent time in prison for his role in the death of 29 coal miners. Mr Blankenship also called the father-in-law of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a “wealthy Chinaperson” and derided “Cocaine Mitch” and his “China family”. Mr Morrisey will face Joe Manchin, another vulnerable Democratic senator, in November.
The big exception to the election-day trend of rejecting the maverick came from North Carolina. There Mark Harris, a pastor who made his name denouncing same-sex marriage, defeated Robert Pittenger, a congressman. He will face Dan McCready, a well-funded businessman who won the Democratic nomination—in what is likely to be an especially unpredictable race come November.