Why has the Ohio Republican Senate primary, which reaches its conclusion Tuesday, been so interesting (if not always edifying) to watch? In part, because it’s the first time the divides of the party’s 2016 primary campaign have risen fully to the surface again.
Six years ago, under the pressure of Donald Trump’s insurgency, the G.O.P. split into three factions. First was the party establishment, trying to sustain a business-friendly and internationalist agenda and an institutionalist approach to governance. This was the faction of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, much the party’s Washington D.C. leadership — but fewer of its media organs and activists.
Those groups mostly supported the more movement-driven, True Conservative faction — the faction of Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, the House Freedom Caucus, talk radio. This faction was more libertarian and combative, and richer in grassroots support — but not as rich as it thought.
That’s because Trump himself forged a third faction, pulling together a mixture of populists and paleoconservatives, disaffected voters who didn’t share True Conservatism’s litmus tests and pugilists who just wanted someone to fight liberal cultural dominance, with no agenda beyond the fight itself.
When Trump, astonishingly, won the presidency, you might have expected these factions to feud openly throughout his chaotic administration. But that’s not exactly what happened. Part of the establishment faction — mostly strategists and pundits — broke from the party entirely. The larger part, the Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and Nikki Haley camp, essentially ran policy in the early Trump era — passing tax reform, running the national security bureaucracy, bemoaning Trump’s tweets while setting much of his agenda.
The movement faction, Tea Partyers and TrueCons, was given personnel appointments, the chance to write irrelevant budget proposals, and eventually a degree of personal power, through figures like Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows. (Trump clearly just liked the Freedom Caucus guys, whatever their ideological differences.) The populists, meanwhile, won some victories on immigration policy and trade, while complaining about the “deep state” on almost every other front.
But because both the TrueCons and the populists delighted in Trump’s pugilism — even unto his election-overturning efforts in 2020 — it could be hard to see where one faction ended and the next began. And this pattern often held in Trump-era Republican primary battles, in which candidates with TrueCon or establishment backgrounds recast themselves as Trumpists by endorsing his grievances and paranoias.
But in the Ohio Senate primary, finally, you can see the divisions clearly once again. First you have a candidate, Matt Dolan, who is fully in the establishment lane, explicitly refusing to court Trumpian favor and trying to use the Russian invasion of Ukraine to peel Republicans away from the America First banner.
You have a candidate in the TrueCon lane, the adaptable Josh Mandel, who tried to hug Trump personally but who draws his support from the old powers of movement conservatism — from the Club for Growth to talk radio’s Mark Levin to the political consultancy that runs Ted Cruz’s campaigns.
And you have J.D. Vance, who is very clear about trying to be a populist in full — taking the Trump-in-2016 line on trade and immigration and foreign policy, allying himself with thinkers and funders who want a full break with the pre-Trump G.O.P.
Given this division, it’s significant that Trump decided to endorse Vance, and that his most politically active scion, Donald Jr., is enthusiastic for the “Hillbilly Elegy” author. It’s also significant that Trump’s endorsement hasn’t prevented the Club for Growth from continuing to throw money against Vance, prompting blowback from Trump himself. For the first time since 2016, there’s a clear line not just between Trump and the establishment but between Trumpian populism and movement conservatism.
That line will blur again once the primary is settled. But the battle for Ohio suggests things to look for in 2022 and beyond. First, expect a Trump revival to be more like his 2016 insurgent-populist campaign than his incumbent run in 2020. Second, expect populism writ large to gain some strength and substance but still remain bound to Trump’s obsessions (and appetite for constitutional crisis).
Third, expect many of the movement and TrueCon figures who made their peace with Trump six years ago to be all-in for Ron DeSantis should he seem remotely viable. Fourth, expect the remains of the establishment to divide over whether to rally around a candidate of anti-Trump principle — from Liz Cheney to certain incarnations of Mike Pence — or to make their peace with a harder-edged figure like DeSantis.
Finally, expect a potential second Trump presidency to resemble the scramble for his endorsement in Ohio: the establishment left out in the cold, no Reince Priebus running the White House or McConnell setting its agenda, but just constant policy battles between movement conservatives and populists, each claiming to embody the true and only Trumpism and hoping that the boss agrees.