Yesterday Ohio held its primary election. There was a fierce contest on the Republican ballot for the nomination to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman, a moderate. Most of the candidates who were vying for the nomination, in contrast, were much more on the conservative side of the ledger, seemingly trying to “out-Trump” former President Trump. J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy who was endorsed by Trump, won the primary with just over 30 percent of the vote. Vance will now face Democrat Tim Ryan in November.
The Republican primary for Senate leaves me thinking about just how much the Republican Party in Ohio has changed in my lifetime. Shortly after we graduated from college, we moved to Washington, D.C., where I got a job as a press secretary and legislative aide to Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie, shown above, a Republican who represented part of the Columbus metropolitan area and some of the surrounding rural counties. Mr. Wylie had fought valiantly in World War II in the European theater and been decorated for bravery; after the war he earned his law degree and then worked for years in various city and state public service jobs before being elected to Congress in 1967 and ultimately serving 13 two-year terms.
Mr. Wylie was a quiet, friendly, unassuming person who was the quintessential moderate Republican, very much like Senator Portman. Mr. Wylie didn’t seek the limelight, didn’t make bombastic speeches on the House floor, and had many friends on the Democratic side of the aisle. He was more interested in trying to get things done and serving his constituents than making headlines. To him, “compromise” was not a dirty word, but rather than essence of the political process. His philosophy, expressed to me in many ways when we worked late into the night answering constituent mail, was that you never burned your bridges and that the people you represented, and the country, were always better served by your engaging with the other side, rather than berating them. It’s hard to imagine him in politics now, where his gentle approach would stick out like a sore thumb.
At the time I worked for him, though, Mr. Wylie wasn’t alone. There were other moderate Republicans in Congress from Ohio, and Ohio had a reputation for producing moderate politicians in both parties. But the party has changed and the state has changed to the point where Mr. Wylie, were he with us today, likely wouldn’t recognize it. The changes began even before President Trump decided to run for President, with the internet, communications technology, social media, enormous infusions of cash, and much more frequent primary challenges–all of which have served to push politicians away from the center and move them toward the edges, where they are less likely to be questioned by the far wings of their parties. That is true of both Republicans and Democrats, and it is highly notable in Ohio, where moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats have become a vanishing breed.
J.D. Vance once spoke out against President Trump, but when Vance decided to run for Senate he (and most of the other Republicans seeking the nomination) positioned themselves for Trump’s endorsement, figuring that the former President carried Ohio twice, with surprising margins. With the Republican nomination now secured, will Vance move back toward the center? I think the center still exists in Ohio, but no one really seems to be trying to find it.