Republican rivals to J.D. Vance have embarked on a last-ditch effort to stave off an endorsement from Donald Trump in Ohio’s Senate primary, a response prompted by swirling speculation that the former president is close to backing Vance in the contentious race.
Trump has so far stayed out of the primary, even as early voting has already begun ahead of the May 3 election. But his endorsement could dramatically shift the margins in the crowded field of candidates, where no one in the five-way race has taken a commanding lead.
With an eye toward influencing Trump’s inner circle, on Thursday morning, Remington Research, a polling firm connected to former state treasurer Josh Mandel’s campaign, began circulating to top Republicans a polling memo arguing that a Trump endorsement of Vance would fail to vault Vance into serious contention.
“JD Vance will still lose even with President Trump’s endorsement. JD Vance is widely known by Republican Primary voters for his Never-Trumper comments and his calling Trump supporters ‘racists,’” Titus Bond, the Remington Research Group president, wrote in the memo. “Since he is already known to Ohioans as a self-proclaimed ‘Never Trumper’ and voters will forcefully be reminded of that, Vance will still lose even with President Trump’s endorsement.”
According to the memo, even with a Trump endorsement, Vance would only be in fourth place with 15 percent.
A collection of more than three dozen county GOP chairs and state party central committee members — including some from the state’s most populous counties — also banded together to sign a letter urging Trump not to endorse Vance, noting that he “referred to your supporters as ‘racists’ and proudly voted for Evan McMullin in 2016.”
“While we were working hard in Ohio to support you and Make America Great Again,” they wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO, “JD Vance was actively working against your candidacy.”
Lisa Stickan, the chair of the Cuyahoga County GOP, said a group of county Republican chairs and state central committee members came up with the letter on Thursday after NBC reported that Trump plans to endorse Vance.
“It’s so late in the game and to come out with an endorsement now serves no purpose in helping the party,” she said.
Trump also heard recently from Club for Growth President David McIntosh — a Mandel supporter — who traveled with Trump over the weekend to a North Carolina rally. Trump has told people that, during the trip, McIntosh tried to sway him from endorsing Vance, according to one person with knowledge of Trump’s remarks. The Club did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump on Wednesday announced he will hold a rally next weekend outside of Columbus, further fueling the impression that he intends to take a position in the Senate race. The contest is one of the year’s most expensive Senate primaries so far, generating $55 million in television ad spending.
Trump’s decision recently narrowed down to Vance and Mandel, according to a person close to the former president. Mandel, who ran for Senate in 2018 before dropping out of the race, has consistently led in polling throughout the GOP primary. Investment banker Mike Gibbons “is not on his radar,” the person said, and Trump has written off backing Jane Timken, who he endorsed in 2017 in her successful race for Ohio Republican Party chair.
During a late March fundraiser for Ohio GOP congressional candidate Max Miller, two donors and vocal supporters of Mandel put the hard-sell on Trump about endorsing him, according to a person who attended. Trump replied by saying he heard Vance had the best performance during a recent debate — a forum where Mandel nearly took a swing at GOP opponent Gibbons — and remarked that Mandel’s behavior was “embarrassing.” Trump didn’t mention Gibbons during the conversation, according to the person.
Recent polling by Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, commissioned by a pro-Vance super PAC, showed Vance catching up to Mandel and Gibbons in a three-way primary.
Timken’s campaign released a poll last week that showed a tight race with Gibbons in the lead with 20 percent, Mandel at 16 percent, Timken at 15 percent and Matt Dolan at 13 percent. Vance finished last in the survey with 10 percent.
Advisers around Trump were frustrated when Timken earlier in the campaign touted having a Trump endorsement, suggesting she was misleading voters by conflating the state party chair endorsement with a Trump Senate endorsement. Timken allies in recent days have continued to advocate for her.
“It’s almost like she tried to be cute and it kind of backfired,” said the person close to Trump. “If Trump is looking at it, she already tried claiming the endorsement and it didn’t work for her. If it would have worked and she shot up in the polls, then it would have made sense.”
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, hasn’t hidden his preference for Vance and has publicly defended him. A person familiar with Trump Jr.’s thinking said he did not want to get out ahead of his father by issuing an official endorsement of Vance.
“Don would be enthusiastic about a JD endorsement,” and would follow suit if Trump issued one, the person said.
Vance last visited with Trump roughly a month and a half ago at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting, which was brief and informal.
Trump is set to hold a rally on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio, outside of Columbus at the Delaware County Fairgrounds. No announcements have been made about pre-program speakers.
Another Trump adviser said an endorsement from Trump in Ohio did not make sense at this moment and he would be better off waiting until after the primary.
“From everything I can gather he will just stay out of it for now until there is a clear and decisive frontrunner,” the adviser said. “At this point we’re less than four weeks out from the election and there’s a bunch of different polls that show Mandel or Gibbons or JD all tied and I think it’s just too late in the game. And from his perspective, why would I risk choosing a loser especially after he stayed out of it for over a year?”
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