Vance has a TV-ready personality and an easy-to-use microphone that shines through in rambling discussions and speeches. He’s never ran for office before, so he’s not carrying any of the baggage carried by main competitor Josh Mandel, a former Ohio treasurer with an appetite for divisive cultural debates, from past losses. Like Trump, Vance often defies the aligned business interests that have long dominated conservative politics, and is eager to engage in battles over big tech, border security and more.
Vance’s commitments — largely to be found on a video criticizing many of the same politicians and policies he now embraces — mirror those Trump once faced.
Rivals are trying to exploit those old statements, including Vance’s 2016 suggestion that he might vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump. Then some Republican officials who worked to help the former president win Ohio say they see Trump’s endorsement of Vance as a betrayal, while Democratic strategists say that if Vance advances to the general election, where he likely faces Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, they will. It seeks to portray it as inauthentic.
Mike Gibbons, the Republican Senate candidate who has largely funded his campaign, said Trump’s decision to endorse Vance left the other candidates an opportunity that would not have come about had the former president backed someone who was more loyal to his campaign in 2016 and 2020. .
“My first choice was for him to endorse me,” Gibbons said in an interview. “My second choice was to stay out of the house. Our third choice was for him to endorse JD Vance.”
But Vance has one thing that may be more important to Republicans voting in next week’s primaries: tolerance from Trump.
“He’s the guy who said some bad words about me. He did it,” Trump said at a rally last week at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, north of Columbus. “But you know what? Every single one of the others did too. In fact, if I had held to that standard, I don’t think I would have endorsed anyone in the country.”
Trump eventually said, “I want to pick someone who is going to win, and that guy is going to win.”
So far, Trump’s endorsement appears to have translated into a boost for Vance. A Fox News poll on Tuesday showed he has advanced to the top, with 23% support among Republican primary voters, five points ahead of Mandel, who is campaigning with Texas Senator Ted Cruz at the end of the race weekend.
Gibbons followed them, according to the poll, with 13%. Senator Matt Dolan, the only candidate who did not embrace Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud in 2020, with 11%; And the state’s former GOP chairwoman, Jane Tamkeen, has a 6% stake.
However, the initial battle remains choppy: The poll found that a quarter of those most likely to vote in the Republican primaries are undecided. Strategists expect a low turnout, in part because the delay in completing redistricting for the state legislature means Ohio must hold two preliminary rounds this year. And institutional-leaning Republicans who back Governor Mike DeWine against a challenge from the right may not be inclined to follow Trump.
“Some voters still don’t know when the primary is going to take place, and it’s going to confuse people,” Steve Stevens, a former Republican congressman who resigned last year to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview Thursday.
In the final weeks of the race, Stivers said Trump’s support provided an indisputable boost to Vance. But he said Vance remains a figure unknown to many Ohio voters because he has never run for office and has spent years living out of the state.
“He wasn’t really a contender before Trump agreed,” Stevens said. “He’s definitely a new character. A lot of people don’t know him because he hasn’t been in party politics for a long time.”
I can support him now.
While Vance moved swiftly to amplify Trump’s endorsement through television ads – an indication that he’s counting on the former president’s loyal following to lure him across the finish line – he barely mentioned it during his Wednesday campaign layover here in Grove City.
“What’s wrong with this country isn’t rocket science,” Vance said. “It’s bad driving.”
His comments also made it clear that he believes he still has to address lingering concerns about his past criticism of Trump — whose value has ballooned into millions of dollars in TV ads from Club for Growth in his quest to defeat Vance. (The club supports Mandel.)
“I’m sure you’ve seen all these ads accusing me of never being a Trumper,” Vance said, speaking into a quiet room. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t like Donald Trump in 2016 — like a lot of Republicans didn’t like Donald Trump in 2016. The difference between me and them is that I had the honesty to admit I was wrong.”
“Amazingly enough in politics, just admit you were wrong, it’s that simple,” he added.
The remarks were met with lukewarm applause, but many voters later said they were glad Vance faced one of the biggest outstanding questions about his candidacy.
“I couldn’t vote for him in good faith because of the things he said against Trump,” said Bonnie Boyd of Columbus, who came to make a decision on Vance ahead of next week’s vote.
She said she was more offended by Vance’s comment in 2016 that he would consider voting for Clinton over Trump. That was probably what hurt the most,” Boyd said.
But, she said, “When Trump supported him, I thought I could support him now.”
For Trump, Vance’s endorsement offers one of the biggest tests yet of his grip on the GOP base. Several Republicans who came to see Vance on Wednesday disagreed with Boyd, saying they intended to make their decision in the Ohio primary.
“I’m not making my decision based on Trump’s choice,” said Janet Riggle of Grove City, a retired librarian who has not yet decided on the race. “I base my decision on what JD Vance and all the candidates stand for.”
Several Republican voters and party officials across Ohio said in interviews this week that Trump’s endorsement undoubtedly upended the race and gave Vance a lifeline in the final leg of the campaign. But it remained an open question whether it would be enough for a victory.
“He still has to show he’s his man and he can win this race,” a neutral Republican congressman in the contest told CNN. “But for others, I’m touched.”
And that, as one of Vance’s advisers put it, is precisely the reason he’s not shouting out support because he’s still working to present himself to voters – as a “new generation of Republicans.”
“This is the battle we are fighting – not only are we going to defeat the Democrats, but what kind of Republican are we going to send to Washington?” Vance said in Grove City. “The problem we have in Washington right now is that we have too many, too weak Republicans who can’t resist the left.”
A proxy battle over the direction of the Republican Party
While the super PAC funded by pro-Trump tech mogul Peter Thiel promotes Vance through TV ads, the candidate is perfectly aligned with the world of Trump and his henchmen. He has been holding several events in recent days with the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and plans to campaign over the inaugural weekend with Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia.
Other prominent Republican candidates have their own representatives. Cruz campaigns with Mandel, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul Gibbons has endorsed. Timkin hired two senior Trump allies, Corey Lewandowski and David Busey, as strategists, and appeared with Lewandowski at the events.
Angry at the ads, Trump ordered a moderator to send a message to McIntosh last week that read: “Go on your own.”
Vance’s most significant final stumble was his early comments about Ukraine, where Russia was preparing to launch its invasion.
“I have to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine, one way or another,” Vance said on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast in February.
Days later, once the seriousness of the war in Ukraine became more apparent, Vance retracted his position. He issued a lengthy statement saying Russia’s war was “a tragedy without a doubt, especially for the innocent caught in the crossfire,” while opposing any US or NATO military intervention.
There are some indications in recent days that Dolan has emerged as a serious threat to Vance.
The state senator, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, sought to stay above the fight. Most of the attention he received in the race was his dismissal of Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential race. But Dolan also often points out that, as a state lawmaker, he helped enact policies that fit Trump’s agenda.
By appealing to moderates and established Republicans and eschewing Trumpism, Dolan is perhaps the clearest path in the fractured core field.
“Anyone who changes the name of the Cleveland Indians (from 1916), an original baseball franchise, to the Cleveland Guardians, is unfit to serve in the United States Senate,” Trump said on Tuesday. “That’s the case for Matt Dolan, whom I don’t know, I’ve never met, and he might be a very nice guy, but the team will always be the Cleveland Indians to me!”