The 5/3 Primary Watchlist: Ohio and Indiana

Introduction

For this week’s edition of Watchlist, we return from a two-month primary dry spell and turn our attention to two Rust Belt states whose primaries will resume the 2022 primary election season. Indiana and Ohio voters will head to the polls on May 3rd to nominate their slates of candidates for November. Unlike Texas, these two states have no runoff elections. Whoever gets a plurality of votes in each contest will secure that nomination. For more primary election information, feel free to refer to our 2022 Mastersheet.

Statewide

Senate

In Indiana, Republican incumbent Todd Young is set to sail to the GOP nomination unopposed, putting him in excellent position to win another term come November. On the Democratic side, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. is a virtual lock to win the nomination, but his odds of winning in a Republican year, which is what 2022 is shaping up to be, are next to zero, considering that Indiana was 20 points more Republican than the nation as a whole in 2020. We have this race rated as Safe Republican.

If Indiana has an exceptionally clear picture, then the race to replace retiring incumbent Rob Portman (R) in Ohio is its direct opposite, with the GOP primary having devolved into a bruising free-for-all. Former favorite Josh Mandel had maintained a healthy lead for the majority of the election, but his lead has evaporated entirely in the last two weeks, with Mandel now placing behind new frontrunner J.D. Vance in all recent public polls of the race. And while the former state treasurer still has a good chance of emerging as the nominee, he can no longer be considered the favorite entering Tuesday’s primary race, having lost out on that title to J.D. Vance.

Vance’s surge can be attributed to former president Donald Trump’s recent surprise endorsement, which injected new life into his campaign. Before Trump’s announcement of the Hillbilly Elegy author, Vance was fourth in the polling averages; however, since then, he has led in every single nonpartisan or Republican poll of the race.

For a while, former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken appeared to be a serious player in the race. Retiring Senator Rob Portman weighed in with his endorsement, but this has not moved the needle much, with Timken having failed to take the lead in any public polls and her support recently dropping to mid single-digits. Similarly, while businessman Mike Gibbons had enjoyed a March surge in support and was briefly one of the frontrunners, his support has likewise dipped, and he enters the day of the election with an outside chance, at best, of winning the primary.

If there is a wildcard in this race, however, it is state Senator Matt Dolan, who comes from the billionaire family owning the Cleveland Guardians and has been openly critical of Trump’s baseless election fraud claims in the past. Trump’s opposition to Dolan has been so strong that the former president even issued an “anti-endorsement” against him. However, this has likely given Dolan a lane to take in the primary, and he has consolidated significant support of late, with a recent Trafalgar poll showing him and Josh Mandel neck and neck for second place.

With Ohio becoming increasingly Republican of late and congressman Tim Ryan (OH-13) a virtual lock to win the Democratic nomination, Dolan may benefit from some Democrats crossing over to vote for him in the state’s open primary in an effort to influence the selection of the future Senator wherever they can. We thus rate the Republican primary at a Tossup, with the two favorites being Vance and Dolan; if we had to pick, Vance would have a slight edge, but Dolan’s late momentum should not be discounted, especially as pollsters could be missing a last-second grassroots movement among Democrats to support Dolan.

No matter who the nominee is, they will enter the general election cycle as strong favorites, and so we have this race rated as Likely Republican. While Tim Ryan is a strong nominee who has significant working-class appeal, the lean of the cycle and the state is simply too Republican for Democrats to begin as anything other than underdogs in this race. This is not the battleground state of past cycles, and if Ryan is to win, it will take a serious deviation from what the fundamentals indicate.

Governor

Of the two states discussed today, only Ohio has a Governor’s primary. Indiana governor Eric Holcomb (R) was reelected by a resounding margin in 2020, as the Hoosier State’s gubernatorial elections are held concurrently with Presidential elections.

Therefore, the only governor’s mansion at stake this Tuesday is in Columbus. Ohio’s incumbent governor Mike DeWine (R) has taken flak from conservatives for his COVID-19 response and other deviations from Republican orthodoxy, drawing out former U.S. Representative Jim Renacci and farmer Joe Blystone as challengers. Although DeWine is polling below 50% of primary voters, the anti-DeWine vote has been split to produce what seems to be shaping into an uncompetitive race.

On the Democratic side, former mayors Joe Cranley (Cincinnati) and Nan Whaley (Dayton) are involved in a head-to-head matchup. Although Whaley has a narrow lead in public polling, not much can be definitively said regarding each candidate’s odds of winning the primary election. Whaley has a more impressive slate of endorsements, and on the basis of that, one may be inclined to give her the slightest of edges. However, the race is truly a pure tossup at this point; not much can be taken as certain when polling shows neither candidate close to a majority of support.

No matter which Democrat advances to face the Republican candidate, who we presume to be Mike DeWine, the national environment and initial polling points to a Safe Republican retention of the governorship in Ohio.

Congressional

Indiana

Indiana’s 1st is a Biden +8 seat represented by freshman Democrat Frank Mrvan. The seat has recently experienced a rightward shift, with President Biden receiving 8 points less of the vote here than did Obama in 2012. These trends, coupled with a favorable national environment, have fueled GOP interest in the district to levels unseen during the Visclosky-era, when Republican recruitment was non-existent. 

Should Mrvan hold this traditionally-Democratic seat in the fall, his long-term future would remain uncertain. Republicans did not alter the 1st in redistricting because they expect trends alone to flip the district into the GOP column either this year or later in the decade. Split Ticket has kept this race at Leans Democratic from the start.

Let’s move on to the primary, where the top three contenders are non-profit executive Jennifer-Ruth Green, ex-La Porte Mayor Blair Milo, and Mark Leyva. Two of these candidates are credible, proving that GOP midterm momentum pays midterm dividends in districts that would otherwise be difficult to win.

Ruth Green, an Air Force veteran, is considered the frontrunner in the race. She has been endorsed by the likes of Senator Tom Cotton and Attorney General Todd Rokita. Milo, who has received fewer high-profile endorsements than her opponent, has instead focused attention on the support that other current and former Indiana Mayors have offered her. Both candidates have accused each other of being insufficiently conservative per the Indianapolis Star.

Split Ticket rates this primary Leans Ruth Green. Milo certainly has a solid base out east, but LaPorte County accounts for just 11% of the 1st’s population. The city proper is not even fully in the district. Ruth Green, meanwhile, is from Crown Point. That should give her a high floor in Lake County – the district’s most populous. Levya, a known element who has run for the 1st ten times since 1998, should not be ignored either.

The other district worth watching in the Hoosier State is the 9th, a solidly-Republican seat represented by retiring Congressman Trey Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth’s announcement earlier this year opened the primary floodgates in a district that abandoned the last vestiges of its Butternut Democratic traditions during the Trump-era. Redistricting shifted the boundaries of the seat without changing its partisanship. The district, which took on some of the current 6th, now includes all of southeastern Indiana lying along the Ohio River.

There are three prominent candidates seeking the nomination in the 9th: state Senator Erin Houchin, former Congressman Mike Sodrel, and Stu Barnes-Israel. Houchin defeated Democratic Senate Leader Richard Young in 2014 before losing to Hollingsworth in the 2016 primary for the seat of future Senator Todd Young. Sodrel contested the 9th on four occasions, unseating Democrat Baron Hill in 2004 before losing rematches in 2006 and 2008. His final defeat occurred in the 2010 GOP primary. Barnes-Israel is attempting to juxtapose himself against his opponents by running as an outsider.

Split Ticket will be rating this primary Tossup. Houchin will certainly dominate her Senate district, of which only Washington (Salem) and Harrison counties are in the new seat, but it is unclear how well she will do in the new eastern rurals that the 9th picked up from the 6th. If this really is Houchin’s race to lose as many expect, she must post margins in unfamiliar territory out east strong enough to overwhelm counties like Monroe (Bloomington) and Clark that broke against her in 2016. 

Sodrel, who runs a trucking business in populous Clark County, has the strongest historical connections to the Louisville area (Clark and Floyd) than any of his opponents. Because his base has been dormant for over a decade, it will be interesting to see if Sodrel has enough residual name identification to win the eastern rurals that redistricting put into the 9th in for the first time since 2002. 

Perhaps the best candidate to take the lion’s share of the 9th’s new eastern territory is Stu Barnes-Israel, a resident of Decatur County who has kept pace with Houchin and Sodrel in terms of fundraising. The biggest prize in this part of the district is Dearborn County.

Ohio

Ohio’s 9th is a Toledo-based district represented by long-time Democrat Marcy Kaptur. First elected in 1982, Congresswoman Kaptur has never had a competitive race in her career. This year’s redistricting cycle broke her lucky streak, seriously endangering Kaptur’s reelection chances amid a national environment that could overwhelm strong brands and regional political loyalties. 

The old iteration of the 9th was trending rightward, but still backed Biden by double-digits. Redistricting removed portions of Cuyahoga and Lorain counties, shifting the seat’s overall partisan lean to Trump +3. Candidate quality does still matter, though, which leads us to assume that Kaptur will put up a tough fight no matter what. We started the district off cautiously at Tossup.

If you haven’t recognized a pattern yet, there also happen to be three main candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the new 9th. The leader in the fundraising game has been state Representative Craig Riedel, but his political base is essentially limited to rural Defiance County in the district’s western extent. By territory and political experience alone, this primary should be Theresa Gavarone’s to lose. Although she herself lives outside the 9th near Bowling Green, her Senate district gives her a high name recognition floor in Lucas, Ottawa, and Erie counties. 

J.R. Majewski, a native of Toledo now residing in Ottawa County (Port Clinton), rounds out the field with the most anti-establishment campaign rhetoric. Considering Riedel’s base is not well suited to forming a district-wide coalition, it is possible that Majewski could exceed expectations enough to take second place or better. Whatever happens, he should not be counted out. Read more about Majewski and the new maps here. Split Ticket will be rating this primary Lean Gavarone.

Let’s conclude with a brief look at each of the other important Ohio congressional primaries.

In the 11th district, Biden-endorsed Democratic Congresswoman Shontel Brown is facing a rematch against progressive firebrand Nina Turner. Brown won 50-45 in last year’s closely-contested special election primary, running up the score with white and black voters in Cuyahoga County. Turner won the black vote in neighboring Summit County, home to Akron, but it was removed from the 11th in redistricting. The district reconfiguration is enough for Split Ticket to rate the primary Likely Brown.

Split Ticket is also watching Republican primaries in districts 7 and 13, the only seats in the state where former President Trump has weighed in. In the 7th, redistricting dealt long-time incumbent Bob Gibbs a seat that he was unfamiliar with. Facing opposition from controversial ex-Trump aide Max Miller, the incumbent dropped out. Miller’s leading opponent is businessman Charlie Gaddis, a candidate with strong local connections but no warchest. At Trump +10, any Republican would be a strong favorite to win this Medina/Wayne-based seat in the fall. Likely Miller.

The primary in the 13th district will probably be slightly more competitive. Nominating the right candidate will also matter more here than in the 7th, since this Summit/Stark-based seat would have narrowly backed Biden in 2020. The winner will face state Representative Emilia Sykes in a November Tossup race. Trump’s candidate of choice is attorney and former Miss Ohio Madison Gesiotto. Perhaps unwisely, Gesiotto has ignored credible challengers like Greg Wheeler, Shay Hawkins, and Janet Folger Porter. This will be a critical test of the former President’s endorsement power, and Split Ticket will be cautiously giving a Leans Gesiotto rating.

Ohio’s last Tossup race is the 1st district. Despite becoming more Democratic in the redraw, veteran Republican incumbent Steve Chabot has a strong enough record of attracting crossover support to keep his Cincinnati-area seat in contention amid a favorable environment. There are no competitive primaries here. Like Sykes in the 13th and Kaptur in the 9th, City Councilman Greg Landsman will secure his nomination without competition.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.

I make election maps! If you’re reading a Split Ticket article, then odds are you’ve seen one of them. I’m an engineering student at UCLA and electoral politics are a great way for me to exercise creativity away from schoolwork. I also run and love the outdoors!

You can contact me @politicsmaps on Twitter.

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