On Friday, former President Donald J. Trump endorsed author and venture capitalist JD Vance in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio, aiming to give the candidate the necessary boost in a massive race that will test the power of Trump as kingmaker in key congressional contests.
Calling Mr. Vance “our best chance of victory in what could be a very tough race,” Trump said in a statement that the candidate was “strong on the border, tough on crime, understands how to use taxes and tariffs to keep China is responsible, will fight to dismantle Big Tech, and has been a warrior in the rigged and stolen presidential election.”
The move amounted to a big gamble on Vance and Trump’s own influence over Republican primary voters in conservative-leaning Ohio, where several high-profile candidates are facing off in a contentious and at times ugly campaign to replace to the retiring senator. Rob Portman, a Republican.
With less than three weeks to go before the May 3 primary election, limited polling has shown Vance struggling to break through such rivals as Josh Mandel, the former Ohio state treasurer; Jane Timken, former chair of the Ohio Republican Party; and Mike Gibbons, financier. No one has emerged as a clear favourite.
The highly coveted endorsement came after weeks in which the main candidates in the race veered increasingly to the right in pursuit of Trump’s support, with tension and anticipation building ahead of a planned visit to the state by the former president. April 23th. In recent days, as news reports revealed that Vance was likely to win Trump’s endorsement, supporters of other candidates engaged in last-minute efforts to prevent the endorsement.
More than three dozen Republican state and county committee leaders urged the former president in a letter not to endorse Vance, questioning his Republican credentials and noting that he had repeatedly denounced Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But Trump had all but decided days earlier to support Vance, according to Republicans familiar with his thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
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Trump called Vance shortly before the sponsorship ad was published. In his statement on Friday, Trump said: “JD Vance may have said some not-so-nice things about me in the past, but now he gets it, and I’ve seen it in spades.”
According to a Republican familiar with Trump’s thinking, several factors influenced him, one of which was watching clips from a Republican primary debate in which two of the. candidates, Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons, won
The move carries significant risks for Trump, whose endorsements in other star races across the country have yet to prove decisive. In Georgia, his attempt to push through David Perdue’s Republican primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp has largely been viewed as disappointing.
Few races across the country have captured Trump’s effect in the Republican primary the way the Republican campaign for Ohio’s Senate has, with candidates seeking to model themselves after the former president.
Most of the contenders have criticized undocumented immigrants and only one has recognized President Biden as the legitimate leader of the nation. Two almost came to blows during a recent debate.
Before the endorsement, many county GOP leaders expressed frustration that Trump could select Vance, the author of the 2016 best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” They pointed out that he had spent much of his life in San Francisco and had criticized Trump even as they worked to elect him.
“He’s the guy who worked against Trump and spoke against Trump and told everyone he didn’t vote for Trump,” said David Johnson, chairman of the Columbiana County Republican Party, who endorsed Timken. “He’s a very smart, well-spoken guy, but the concern is that he wouldn’t carry Trump’s base from the Republican Party in Ohio, and you have to have this to win.”
Mr. Johnson helped circulate the letter from Republican leaders in Ohio, which said Mr. Vance was not a registered Republican, and provided Trump with a list of negative comments Mr. Vance had made against him in the past, including calling it “another opioid” in 2016 and said he expected Trump to be “soundly defeated” that year.
“While we were working hard in Ohio to support him and make America great again, JD Vance was actively working against his candidacy,” the letter says. “He referred to his supporters as ‘racists’ and proudly voted for Evan McMullin in 2016.”
Asked for comment, including on the allegation that Mr. Vance is not a registered Republican, Taylor Van Kirk, a spokesman for the Vance campaign, said, “When he voted in the primary, JD always voted Republican. He has a long public history of supporting Republican candidates, including Donald Trump in 2020.”
The campaign also pointed to polls showing Vance in second place behind Mandel; a tweet from a GOP county chairman denying he signed the letter; and another tweet from the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life PAC expressing support for Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Vance.
The group’s president, Marshal Pitchford, wrote: “President Trump would make a fantastic choice endorsing @JDVance1. JD is 100% pro-life with no exceptions. It will continue President Trump’s pro-life victories in the United States Senate.”
In campaign speeches, Vance was quick to address criticism that he has not always been loyal to Trump, often saying that the best policy is honesty.
“I didn’t like Trump six years ago,” he told a small crowd of supporters this week at a beer hall in Hilliard. “I didn’t think he was going to be a good president. He was very happy that he was proven wrong.”
He added: “I felt very proud to support the president for the last few years.”