“It created a bit of chaos in the race, and it’s still a jump ball,” said former GOP chairwoman Jane Timken and one of the seven primary candidates looking to replace retired Republican Senator Rob Portman.
Only one Republican candidate, Senator Matt Dolan, has refused to impeach Trump and dismissed the former president’s lies about widespread election fraud. Timken, along with former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons, had hoped to win Trump’s endorsement.
“He’s the guy who said some bad about me. He did. But did you know? Every one of the others did too. In fact, if I held that standard, I don’t think I would ever endorse anyone in the country,” Trump said.
He described Vance as a “brave MAGA fighter” and said, “I want to pick someone who will win, and this guy will win.”
However, the crowd at the Trump rally north of Columbus offered a glimpse into why Trump’s support for Vance isn’t enough to win the primaries.
Stan Johnson, a 48-year-old retiree from Columbus, said he “should split” from Trump in the Senate primary, and would vote for Mandel. “I just think Josh Mandel is honest about what he says,” Johnson said. “People are calling him sadder — they’re calling Trump more elegant. I don’t think that’s what he wants. I really think he cares about Ohio.”
He cited Vance’s previous criticism of Trump — words that now appear in ads that his rivals and supporters have broadcast over the Ohio airwaves.
“What really wrongs me about him is that he really opposed Trump in 2016. I don’t know where his loyalty lies,” Johnson said.
Others said Trump’s approval of Vance would be the deciding factor in the Republican Party’s initial vote in the Senate.
Connie Gleeson, a 55-year-old waitress and retired government employee who lives near Hamilton, said she always supports the candidates Trump endorses.
“Whoever my president supports is who I vote for,” Gleeson said. “My faith is 100% in our president.”
The implications of endorsing Trump
Vance’s support has doubled since the previous Fox News poll in March, underscoring how much Trump’s support has affected the race that Mandel and Gibbons previously led.
Both hoped to support Trump, or to keep Trump out of the race. Now that he’s into it, though, Vance’s opponents and the groups that support them are changing their strategies.
Gibbons, propelled by his self-financed TV ads, has presented himself as a Trump-like candidate: both are businessmen, and neither is political. Now, Gibbons downplays those similarities.
“I mean, I think I’m a completely different person,” Gibbons said in an interview before addressing the Young Republicans in Columbus. “I’m a strong conservative; a philosophical conservative. I think the party is trying to find its way around now, and there are a lot of different camps out there.”
Gibbons stuck to his long-standing praise of Trump’s tenure in the White House. But he said Trump “doesn’t have a track record of picking people”.
“I think he did things that would make him the greatest president of my life, and I wouldn’t change my mind about that,” Gibbons said. “What he did, not the people he hired or what he said, that matters.” . “I don’t think it will have the effect that everyone thought.”
Trump’s approvals did not always expire. In March, he withdrew his support for Representative Moe Brooks’ request in the Alabama Senate, saying that Brooks had “wake up” because he said there was no way to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In the Pennsylvania race for the Senate, Trump initially supported Sean Parnell – who withdrew Later, amid allegations of abuse that surfaced in a custody battle with his ex-wife. He then supported the famous heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, a choice that was met with a backlash from some on the right. In Ohio, a frantic last-minute campaign to prevent Trump from endorsing Vance failed.
Mandel, in turn, called in other far-right auditors. And last week he campaigned with Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser and is a staunch supporter of the former president. He is also scheduled to campaign with Texas Senator Ted Cruz at the end of the race this weekend.
Meanwhile, Timken is touting an endorsement of Portman, the retired senator. And while she doesn’t have Trump’s endorsement, she regularly bragged that Trump elevated her to the position of party chief in the country while in office.
Mason Lyles, a 31-year-old Columbus resident who volunteered for the Timken campaign roads effort in Columbus, said he was looking for an approach similar to what worked with Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won Virginia’s governor race last year with the campaign focused on education. And the policies of Covid-19 have won back many suburban voters who have fled the GOP in recent years.
“There’s a lot of these celebrity policies going on, and I don’t like celebrity policies because I think it distracts from doing the job and also helps codify more power in the elite,” Lyles said.
Ad wars ignite
GOP spending in the race is up to $65.7 million so far.
Dolan, the only candidate in the race to reject Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud, spent $9.1 million on ads and hits on Vance in online videos for commenting at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine saying “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”
“My opponents focus on insults rather than results,” Dolan says at once. “They attack and insult each other—they even have a close first fight.” “So forget all their bullshit. This is your seat in the Senate, because Ohio is what matters.”
Gibbons — who has spent more than $13.4 million, fueled by his personal fortune — swoops in on all of his rivals in an ad his campaign has launched in recent days — including Dolan, who said in a recent tweet that “isn’t conservative, not even close.”
“You can’t believe them,” Gibbons says in the ad. “Josh Mandel is a politician; J.D. Vance is a celebrity. They’ve made their careers and create nothing but their own image. They’ve made me jobs.”
CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.