At a launch rally Thursday night in his hometown of Middletown, near Cincinnati, Vance delivered a populist message, with big business, big tech companies and “public health leadership” in the sights. He also promised to fight for the grandmothers who believe in a secure border and for the “middle class worker”.
“I want to be not just a fighter, but a fighter who fights for you,” Vance said from behind a lectern where, moments before his announcement, a campaign sign had fallen.
“There has never been a Republican primary for such an open and chaotic Ohio statewide office,” said a Republican strategist familiar with Ohio. “Each of these candidates has their own Republican base claim. “
Most Ohio Republicans doubt Trump will approve until the May 3 primary of next year, but the fight for his coat is ongoing. Mandel, for example, has taken on the role of pro-Trump culture warrior, posting a video last month of himself burning a protective mask to protest against the Covid-19 restrictions. The more establishment-aligned Timken may point to Trump’s support as president of the Ohio GOP in January 2017. And Vance echoed Trump’s criticism of “Big Tech” – the aligning with Trump donor and Silicon Valley gadfly Peter Thiel, who earlier this year pledged $ 10 million to a pro-Vance super PAC.
Trump’s centrality in the GOP primary reflects how the former president remains a political force in Buckeye State. Trump has won the state twice, winning over 3 million votes in 2020 and improving his share of the vote from four years earlier by 2 percentage points.
Once considered a perennial swing state, Ohio has evolved into the GOP over the past decade. Meanwhile, Republicans have held all executive positions in the state and a majority in both houses of the state legislature. Since 2010, only two Democrats have been able to win across the state of Ohio: Barack Obama in his 2012 re-election bid and Senator Sherrod Brown, who was re-elected in 2012 and again in 2018.
Trump’s rise accelerated the GOP takeover, allowing the party to grab the white working class vote that Democrats have struggled to keep in the fold. In the midst of their own primary battle, Republicans are trying to define the Democrats’ leading candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan, as someone who is captured by his party’s left wing and disconnected from the Ohioans.
“As Tim Ryan seeks promotion, he is turning more and more to the left to appease his liberal bosses – Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, AOC and Bernie Sanders,” said Lizzie Litzow of the National Republican Senate Committee. “He is in tune with these radicals on issues such as the opening of the borders which led to the scandalous crisis at our southern border and the abolition of systematic obstruction – a blatant takeover. “
Hoping for a turnaround in their fortunes, Democrats in Ohio and the country are counting on a chaotic and messy Republican primary to give their candidate a chance.
“Their chaos is our opportunity,” said Liz Walters, president of the Ohio Democratic Party. “These Republican candidates are campaigning so desperately for an audience of one, for Trump. “
Ryan declined to be interviewed for this story.
Vying for Trump’s base
That competition peaked in Wellington, Ohio on Saturday, where each of the top Republican contenders treated Trump’s rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds as a testing ground.
Ahead of the rally, Timken aired a radio commercial touting his Trump credentials. That same day, she had a plane flying over participants at the rally touting her campaign and had campaign volunteers around the event to meet with voters. Gibbons hosted a pro-Trump hatchback ahead of the rally and had volunteers and the event. Mandel and Moreno both took a more laid back approach to the event – they attended but mostly just mingled with the people.
Trump – in Ohio to kick off his revenge tour against Republicans who have not been loyal to him – clearly enjoyed the competition vying for support from his base.
Standing on stage in the depths of his rally, the former president began to play the divisions.
“Hey, do you want to take a poll,” Trump exclaimed of the Senate race, plunging the crowd of supporters into the controversial case.
When Trump mentioned Timken, the former state party chairman received a handful of cheers, whines and hoots. Mandel, who has tailored his campaign tightly to the Trump base, received warmer applause, while the response to Gibbons – rather a stranger in the race – has been more muted. The former president, apparently sensing the divisions, said: “I think we’re going to get out of this poll,” before mentioning Moreno.
The tension at the Trump rally was just the latest – and perhaps the most public – chapter in an already frenzied race, one that has seen the candidates fight.
Mandel, the 43-year-old veteran of the Marines, is considered the current favorite, even by those who support his rivals. Through his two terms as state treasurer, he has great identification and ties to conservative groups and leaders in Ohio.
Mandel also brings in a hefty sum of campaign dollars – over $ 4 million – that went unspent during his short run for the Senate in 2018, when he dropped out months before the primary.
“If the election were held today Josh would win,” an adviser told another GOP candidate.
But Mandel also faces headwinds in the early months of his current campaign. The Columbus Dispatch reported in May that three of Mandel’s fundraisers had left the campaign, followed by a report this week that two of those staff left due to a “toxic work environment” created by Mandel’s girlfriend and CFO Rachel Wilson.
Mandel declined to comment on CNN on the reports.
Mandel’s most direct competitor appears to be Timken, who is running for the race without the experience of an elected position but with a formidable organization – including committee chairs in all 88 counties in Ohio. Timken also has access to financial and political resources through her husband, Tim Timken, a former steel executive who is a lobbyist in Columbus.
Timken criticized other candidates “who founded President Trump, refused to campaign for him or to quit tough fights” – something she has done regularly in campaign literature that calls her opponents by name. Mandel has regularly attacked Timken, portraying her as someone not entirely loyal to Trump and linking her to former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican who has drawn the ire of Trump loyalists.
Much of Mandel’s attention to Timken has been focused on Representative Anthony Gonzalez, the Republican congressman who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment earlier this year. The Ohio Republican Party then censored Gonzalez and asked him to resign.
Timken carefully defended Gonzalez after his vote, touting his record as a lawmaker and opening a line of attack for Mandel.
“Question: Why did Jane Timken refuse to censor Gonzalez when she was president?” She clearly had time to do it, ”Mandel tweeted in May. “So what’s the real reason? ”
A “different type of candidate”
Vance enters the Senate race as a kind of wild card. Known primarily for his successful memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the Yale Law School graduate and venture capitalist has become an authoritative voice on the white working class that forms the basis of Trump’s support for the GOP.
But Vance’s political fate could come down to how he talks about his transformation on Trump, which he publicly opposed in 2016 before reversing his stance in 2020.
During the 2016 campaign, Vance wrote in USA Today: “Trump’s real policy proposals, as they stand, range from the immoral to the absurd.” That same year, as it became clear that Trump would become the GOP presidential candidate, Vance wrote in The Atlantic that “Trump is cultural heroine” which “makes some feel a little better.”
“He cannot fix what is afflicting them, and one day they will find out,” Vance added.
As the anonymous text message shows, Vance is already facing attacks for his past opposition to Trump. Part of that will come from the national conservative movement, which has started to rally around Mandel. The political action committee of the Club for Growth, which backed Mandel in March, released a statement against Vance on Wednesday evening.
“He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in Mr. Vance’s short time in politics he has spent most of his time demolishing President Trump and making fun of Trump voters,” he said. said club president David McIntosh.
Nonetheless, Vance’s allies say he is the most genuine candidate on the pitch because he can articulate why Trump became president so well. (They also point out that some of his opponents, including Mandel, first backed other Republicans in the Ohio presidential primary in 2016.)
Earlier this year, Vance met Trump in Mar-a-Lago. He also attended his rally last week in Ohio. And his connection with Thiel can still help ease any bad feelings Trump might have for Vance.
A spokesperson for the Thiel-backed super PAC, Protect Ohio Values, told CNN that Vance “strongly believes in President Trump’s America First agenda and is focused on fighting for policies that will benefit the powerful middle class of the United States. Ohio ”.
“The people of Ohio want the elected leaders with the backbone to stand up to the corrupt Washington political class and we are confident that JD Vance is the only candidate in this race who fits this bill,” added the spokesperson.
The familiar Republican strategist from Ohio called Vance a “candidate of a different kind” with an idiosyncratic style and issue that could erupt if primary voters found themselves disappointed with Mandel and Timken.
This ties in with the overwhelming feeling among Republicans in Ohio that, unless Trump intervenes, anything could happen.
“This could be the craziest primary of the cycle,” said the GOP strategist.
This story was updated with Vance’s remarks on Thursday night.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.