By Eric Bradner and Jeff Zeleny, CNN
J.D. Vance’s bid for the Ohio Republican Senate nomination has turned into the clearest early test in this year’s midterm elections of former President Donald Trump‘s influence over the candidates whom GOP primary voters back and the policies that animate the party.
Trump plucked Vance from a pack of better-polling rivals, hoping that his endorsement of the venture capitalist, whose memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” became a Netflix movie, would be enough to carry the candidate through the wide-open May 3 primary to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
Vance possesses a ready-for-television personality and an ease at the microphone that shines through in debates and stump speeches. He has never run for office before, so he holds none of the baggage that leading rival Josh Mandel, the former Ohio treasurer with an appetite for divisive cultural debates, carries from previous losses. Mirroring Trump, Vance frequently breaks from the business-aligned interests that have long dominated conservative politics and is eager to engage in fights over Big Tech, border security and more.
Vance’s liabilities — largely that he can be found on video lambasting many of the same politicians and policies he now embraces — mirror those that Trump once faced.
Rivals are attempting to exploit those old remarks, including Vance’s 2016 suggestion that he might vote for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump. Some Republican officials who worked to help the former President win Ohio then 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 will likely face Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, they will seek to portray him as inauthentic.
GOP Senate hopeful Mike Gibbons, the businessman who has largely self-funded his campaign, said Trump’s decision to endorse Vance left other candidates an opening that would not have existed had the former President backed someone who had been more loyal to his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
“My first choice was that he endorse me. Our second choice was that he would stay out. And our third choice was that he would endorse J.D. Vance,” Gibbons said in an interview.
But Vance has the one thing that might matter most to Republicans voting in next week’s primary: forgiveness from Trump.
“He’s the guy that said some bad s— about me. He did,” Trump said at a rally last week at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, north of Columbus. “But you know what? Every one of the others did also. In fact, if I went by that standard, I don’t think I’d have ever endorsed anyone in the country.”
Ultimately, Trump said, “I want to pick somebody that’s going to win, and this man is going to win.”
So far, Trump’s endorsement appears to have translated into a boost for Vance. A Fox News poll released Tuesday showed he had edged into the lead, with 23% support among GOP primary voters, 5 points ahead of Mandel, who is campaigning with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the race’s closing weekend.
They were followed, according to the survey, by Gibbons at 13%; state Sen. Matt Dolan, the only candidate who has not embraced Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud in 2020, at 11%; and former state GOP chair Jane Timken at 6%.
Still, the primary battle is fluid: A quarter of those likely to vote in the Republican primary were undecided, the poll found. Strategists expect low turnout, in part because a delay in finalizing redistricting for the state legislature means Ohio has to hold two primaries this year. And establishment-leaning Republicans backing Gov. Mike DeWine against a challenge from the right might not be inclined to follow Trump’s lead.
“Some voters still don’t know when the primary is, and it’s going to confuse people,” Steve Stivers, a former GOP congressman who resigned last year to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview Thursday.
In the closing weeks of the race, Stivers said the support from Trump offered an unquestionable boost for Vance. But he said Vance remains an unknown figure to many Ohio voters because he has not run for office before and spent years living outside the state.
“He wasn’t really a contender before the Trump endorsement,” Stivers said. “He’s absolutely a new figure. A lot of people don’t know him because he’s not been engaged in the party politics very long.”
‘I can support him now’
While Vance moved quickly to magnify Trump’s endorsement through TV ads — a sign he is counting on the former President’s loyal followers to pull him across the finish line — he barely mentioned it during a campaign stop Wednesday here in Grove City.
To a lunchtime crowd of about 50 people in the central Ohio town, Vance spent far more time delivering a pointed critique of President Joe Biden than touting his support from Trump.
“What’s wrong with this country is not rocket science,” Vance said. “It’s bad leadership.”
His remarks also made clear that he believes he still must address lingering concerns about his previous criticism of Trump — which has been amplified by millions of dollars in TV ads from the Club for Growth in its quest to defeat Vance. (The Club is supporting Mandel.)
“I’m sure you’ve seen all these advertisements accusing me of being a ‘Never Trumper,’ Vance said, speaking to a hushed room. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t like Donald Trump in 2016 — like a lot of Republicans didn’t love Donald Trump in 2016. The difference between me and them is that I’ve actually had the honesty to admit that I was wrong.”
He added, “Amazingly in politics, just admit you were wrong, it’s that simple.”
The remarks drew tepid applause, but several voters said later they were pleased Vance had confronted one of the biggest questions hanging over his candidacy.
“I couldn’t in good faith vote for him because of things he said against Trump,” said Bonnie Boyd of Columbus, who came to take her own measure of Vance before voting next week.
She said she was most offended by Vance’s comment in 2016 that he would consider voting for Clinton over Trump. “That probably hurt the most,” Boyd said.
But “when Trump endorsed him,” she said, “I thought I can support him now.”
For Trump, the Vance endorsement offers one of the biggest tests yet of his grip over the GOP base. Several Republicans who came to see Vance on Wednesday disagreed with Boyd, saying they intended to make up their own minds in the Ohio primary.
“I’m not making my decision based on Trump’s choice,” said Janet Riegel of Grove City, a retired librarian who is still undecided in the race. “I’m basing my decision on what J.D. Vance and all of the candidates stand for.”
Several Republican voters and party officials across Ohio said in interviews this week that the Trump endorsement has unquestionably upended the race and given Vance a lifeline in the final stretch of campaigning. But it remained an open question whether it would be enough to deliver a victory.
“He still has to show that he is his own man and can win this race,” a Republican lawmaker who is neutral in the contest told CNN. “But for the others, it stung.”
And that, one Vance adviser said, is precisely why he is not loudly trumpeting the endorsement as he still works to introduce himself to voters — as a “new generation Republican.”
“This is the fight that we’re having — not just are we going to beat the Democrats, but what kind of Republican are we going to send to Washington?” Vance said in Grove City. “The problem that we have in Washington right now is that we have very, very many weak Republicans who are terrible at fighting back against the left.”
Proxy battle over GOP’s direction
While a super PAC funded by pro-Trump tech mogul Peter Thiel boosts Vance through television ads, the candidate is fully aligning himself with Trump world and its acolytes. He has held several events in recent days with the former President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and plans to campaign over the primary’s closing weekend with Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
The other leading Republican candidates have their own surrogates. Cruz is campaigning with Mandel, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has endorsed Gibbons. Timken hired two top Trump allies, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, as strategists, and has appeared with Lewandowski at events.
The most significant split is between Trump and David McIntosh, the head of the Club for Growth, which has long been one of the biggest financial players in GOP primaries and has largely supported Trump-endorsed candidates.
In Ohio, the group’s political arm, Club for Growth Action, is airing ads highlighting Vance’s previous criticism of Trump, questioning whether Trump is fully aware of Vance’s words and even tweaking the former President for his past endorsement of Mitt Romney’s Senate candidacy.
Furious about the ads, Trump ordered an intermediary to send McIntosh a text last week that read: “Go f— yourself.”
Vance’s most significant recent stumble has been his early comments about Ukraine, as Russia prepared to launch its invasion.
“I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine, one way or the other,” Vance said on former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast in February.
Days later, once the gravity of the war unfolding in Ukraine was more clear, Vance backtracked. He issued a lengthy statement, saying that Russia’s war was “unquestionably a tragedy, especially for the innocent people caught in the crossfire,” while also opposing any US or NATO military intervention.
Last week, Dolan highlighted Vance’s early remarks about Ukraine in a digital video, noting that Ohio is home to 80,000 people with ties to Ukraine.
There are some signs in recent days that Dolan is emerging as a serious threat to Vance.
The state senator whose family owns baseball’s Cleveland Guardians has largely sought to stay above the fray. Most of the attention he has received in the race has been for his rejection of Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential race. But Dolan also frequently points out that, as a state lawmaker, he has helped enact policies that fit into Trump’s agenda.
By appealing to moderates and establishment Republicans and eschewing Trumpism, Dolan has perhaps the clearest lane in the fractured primary field.
And Trump seems to recognize this. The former President in a statement this week attacked Dolan over the Guardians’ decision last year to change their name from the Cleveland Indians.
“Anybody who changes the name of the “storied” Cleveland Indians (from 1916), an original baseball franchise, to the Cleveland Guardians, is not fit to serve in the United States Senate,” Trump said Tuesday. “Such is the case for Matt Dolan, who I don’t know, have never met, and may be a very nice guy, but the team will always remain the Cleveland Indians to me!”
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