In Ohio GOP Senate race, candidates play on Trumpiness without Trump

J.D. Vance is the favorite to win Ohio's Republican Senate primary Tuesday after nabbing Donald Trump's endorsement. That hasn't stopped Vance's GOP rivals from tying themselves to the ex-president.

Rick Rouan
  • Ohio Republicans will select their Senate nominee Tuesday in a race to succeed retiring Rob Portman.
  • J.D. Vance is the favorite to win the nomination after former president Donald Trump endorsed him.
  • Given Trump's popularity among Ohio Republicans, Vance's GOP rivals are promoting their Trump ties.

GROVE CITY, Ohio – In the waning days of a bruising Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, Don Cary was still on the fence.

The 75-year-old had all but disqualified J.D. Vance from his ballot because of the venture capitalist and author’s comments about former President Donald Trump. But Cary said he had to reconsider when Trump set aside those comments to back Vance.

“I wasn’t going to vote for him to be honest with you,” Cary told USA TODAY after a Vance campaign event at a central Ohio brewery last week. Cary said he was considering Josh Mandel or Mike Gibbons before Trump weighed in.

After Trump's endorsement on April 15, Vance's campaign is surging. Vance jumped in a Fox News poll from a distant third to leading the pack, though about a quarter of voters are undecided.

Even after Vance won the Trump endorsement derby, the candidates who long fought for the former president’s support haven’t stopped using him in their campaigns. Their websites and advertisements overtly reference connections to Trump, who stumped for Vance at a rally in central Ohio two weeks before the state’s primary Tuesday.

Venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance, who is running for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, speaks to voters April 27, 2022, in Grove City, Ohio.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The campaigns' strategy of ignoring Trump's endorsement calls to question how discerning Ohio voters will be when they cast their ballots after most of the competitors in the crowded field spent the better part of a year marketing themselves as the "Trump candidate."

Voters have been casting early ballots for weeks.

Ohioans watching television in the final days of the campaign will see one advertisement that says Vance is the only candidate endorsed by Trump followed by one from a rival Republican that says the candidate supports Trump.

The Club for Growth, a Washington-based conservative group, has been working in open rebellion against Trump's endorsement to back Mandel, even as the former Ohio treasurer touts himself as "pro-Trump."

CAMPAIGN HOMESTRETCH:Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor Greene storm Ohio as Senate candidates make final pitch

Jane Timken, who rose to her post as Ohio GOP chair in 2017 with Trump's backing, features photos of herself with the former president on her campaign website. Gibbons notes on his website that he raised money for Trump's campaigns.

“They’re doing what they can. The Trump endorsement was always going to be the biggest thing to happen in this race," said Mike Hartley, an Ohio-based GOP consultant who is not involved in the race. "When it drops, there’s one person who wins, and everybody else just tries to survive.”

Vance rises after endorsement

While the candidates fight for survival, voters in Ohio are left to read between the lines.

Days after giving Vance his endorsement, Trump told a crowd at a rally in a red slice of Ohio that Vance was the GOP's best shot to take down Tim Ryan, the northeast Ohio congressman who is running in the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat.

"I studied this very closely," Trump said at the rally. "I like a lot of the other people in the race. I liked them a lot. But we have to pick the one that’s going to win. This guy is tough as hell. He’s going to win."

Vance's fundraising took off after the endorsement, and his poll numbers spiked. Voters, though, continue to see other candidates associate themselves with Trump.

OHIO SENATE RACE:'Rough and tumble politics': Senate primary in Ohio shows shifting tone among GOP candidates

A fundraising text message from Timken's campaign is signed from Kellyanne Conway and includes a photo of the former president with his ex-adviser. Gibbons doesn't mention Trump in his most recent ad but regularly mentions on social media that he supports Trump-era policies.

A Fox News poll last month shows about 42% of respondents said Trump's endorsement made them more supportive of Vance.

It shows Gibbons fading and Timken sitting in single-digits. Gibbons, the front-runner in early March, dropped to third, and state Sen. Matt Dolan, who did not seek Trump's support, was a few percentage points behind him, according to the poll.

Mandel maintained his support more than the other candidates even after Trump's endorsement, but the poll shows Vance sailed past him with 23% support, more than double what he had before the endorsement, and Mandel went down 2 points to 18%.

Mandel's campaign slogan – "Pro-God. Pro-Gun. Pro-Trump." – hasn't changed since Trump endorsed his opponent, but he has slowed his mentioning of Trump on social media channels. 

"I continue to be a proud supporter of President Trump and the America First agenda," Mandel posted on social media April 15, the day Trump announced his endorsement. He hasn't mentioned him since.

The Club for Growth backing Mandel has gone on the attack against not just Vance but Trump. The group and Trump have been in a public war over the race.

A Club for Growth ad questions Trump's endorsement of Vance.

"Look, I love Trump, but he's getting it wrong with J.D. Vance," a man says in the ad.

Representatives from the Mandel, Gibbons and Timken campaigns did not respond to a request for comment.

Mike Gibbons, left, and Josh Mandel argue at the FreedomWorks forum for Ohio's Republican Senate candidates on March 18 in Columbus. The forum was attended by candidates Matt Dolan, Gibbons, Mandel, Jane Timken and J.D. Vance.

Ohio voters sorting it out

The ad highlights comments by Vance in 2016 that were critical of Trump, who said at a rally in April that he  looked past those comments to support the candidate he thought had the best shot to win.

Those comments and other candidates' continued association with Trump could confuse voters, said Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native and managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

"The mixed messages they may be hearing could be a problem for Vance and Trump as they seek to get the word out about the endorsement," he said.

PAST FEELINGS:Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance questioned whether Trump is like Hitler in 2016 message

Retired dietitian Bonnie Boyd told USA TODAY after a Vance campaign event that she didn't plan to vote for him because of those comments but that Trump's endorsement changed her mind.

"When I heard him speak, he was good," said Boyd, 70, of Columbus. "But I couldn't bring my heart to vote for him if Trump did not support him because of what he said."

Hartley, the GOP consultant, said he thinks Ohio voters will be able to sort out the difference between Trump's endorsed candidate and those who are trying to exploit their association with him.

“For so long, Ohio had been the center of the political universe. It had been the swing state – not a swing state, but the swing state," he said. "Because of that, the voters in Ohio are pretty sophisticated because for two generations, it had been about Ohio. So they still have that sophistication.”

TRUMP ENDORSEMENTS:Before Ohio Senate primary, GOP voters split on candidates

Like Hartley, Ohio Northern political science professor Rob Alexander said the candidates Trump rejected had little choice but to keep leaning into their association with him.

“Trump is super omnipotent in this campaign," Alexander said. "He’s everywhere and did really well in the last two campaigns.”

Jane Timken speaks at the FreedomWorks forum for Ohio's Republican Senate candidates on March 18 in Columbus. Candidates Matt Dolan, Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance also attended.

Alexander said Vance could face headwinds in the final days of the campaign now that he is considered the front-runner with Trump's backing. Some Republicans wonder whether Trump made the right choice, he said.

Trump supporter Tim Smith, 71, of Sunbury, Ohio, said after Vance's stop last week in Grove City, southwest of Columbus, that he was considering a vote for Gibbons but wanted to hear from Vance.

He agreed with much of what Vance said during a 45-minute stump speech and question-and-answer session with a group of about 50 voters packed into a small room in the back of a brewpub. Even so, he remained undecided.

Vance railed against "weak Republicans" in Washington, a southern border he said is not secure, technology companies "censoring conservatives" and the decline of American manufacturing.

"The question we're deciding is what kind of Republican Party we're going to have: a Republican Party that's led by people who put the interest of our citizens first or a Republican Party that cares more about China than it does about our own country," Vance said as he concluded the event. "That's the debate."

Contributing: USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau reporter Haley Bemiller and USA TODAY data reporter Aleszu Bajak