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Former President Donald Trump’s rally for Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance on Saturday will likely be the biggest event in the hotly contested race – and the race could be the biggest test of Trump’s approval power at this day.
Trump backed Vance for the GOP Senate nomination in Ohio after months of top candidates battling for his support. Rivals Mike Gibbons, Jane Timken and Josh Mandel — all advised and endorsed by at least some regulars in the Trump world — argued with Vance and each other over which support for Trump was more genuine.
For most of the race, it appeared Mandel and Gibbons were first. They were effectively tied at the top of a Fox News race poll taken in early March, with Vance, Timken and Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan all grouped in a second tier of the race.
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But then Trump picked Vance, putting Vance squarely in the running for the nomination.
“Here’s a case where Trump’s endorsement could really make all the difference,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Policy, told Fox News. “He wasn’t one of the two frontrunners. But it seems to me that Trump’s endorsement could easily propel Vance to victory.”
Sabato added, “There’s no second round here. And if you have five candidates splitting the vote, it becomes easier. And if that was part of Trump’s calculation, it was a smart calculation. “
From Vance’s perspective, Trump’s endorsement mitigates one of the most common attacks on his candidacy: that he was highly critical of Trump during his first run for president in 2016.
“It’s extremely powerful. I think it’s the only endorsement in politics that actually moves votes, and it moves a lot of votes, especially here in Ohio,” Vance told Fox News about the Trump’s endorsement.
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“Especially given that so many attack announcements against me have focused on me criticizing Trump in 2016, yeah, that’s a pretty solid reinforcement that the president trusts me,” Vance added. “Obviously the president supports me and sees me as the most aligned candidate to his platform. And so I think that defeats a lot of the negative publicity against my candidacy.”
Vance told Fox News that Trump rally attendees can expect to receive not only a boost in support from the former president, but also the traditional entertainment of the Trump rally.
“We’re going to have a great speech from Trump that half of it will be scripted and the other half will be, you know, telling him jokes and giving everyone a good time,” Vance said.
The Ohio GOP race will be a notable test for Trump’s approval power, largely because so many candidates are trying to line up with Trump, and because it’s so early.
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Other races with similar fields of pro-Trump candidates have yet to take place — including the Pennsylvania and Alabama Senate races, and the Nevada governor’s race.
Other cases of post-presidential endorsements by Trump include Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — who was running in a schools-focused general election — and Texas GOP primaries with entrenched incumbents like Gov. Greg Abbott.
Moreover, in Ohio, even the candidates Trump has not endorsed have embraced “Trumpism” and have credible support from Trump’s Republican allies.
Gibbons is supported by Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Timken is backed by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., Deb Fisher, R-Neb., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, backs Mandel and will campaign with him in Ohio in the final days before the May 3 primary election.
Dolan, who was the only major candidate in the race not to push for Trump’s support, won an endorsement from the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this month.
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“America First is more than just a Republican Party or a specific politician. It is a movement that strives to put the interests of the American people back at the heart of government,” Gibbons said in a statement. “Real and genuine conservative leadership is needed to take on the failures of the Biden administration and conservative voters decide who is best qualified to represent the party.”
“Jane Timken has the proven America First record that no one else in the race can claim,” Timken spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said. “While JD Vance was in Silicon Valley and cable news studios were calling President Trump ‘America’s Hitler’ and denouncing the MAGA movement as ‘racist’, Jane Timken was traveling 150,000 miles across the Ohio to do the important work of dismantling the Kasich establishment and transforming Ohio into a pro-Trump conservative stronghold.”
Trump’s endorsement of Vance does not appear to have allayed concerns about him from at least some Ohio activists. Half of Trump’s 2016 Ohio RNC delegates signed a letter this week calling Trump’s endorsement of Vance “betrayal” and asking him to “reconsider.” This followed a similar letter last week in which the Ohio GOP Central Committee and a group of GOP county chairmen asked Trump not to endorse the race at all.
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Even if Trump’s support for Vance doesn’t translate into a win for the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and former investment banker, Sabato said, Trump is unlikely to suffer any consequences.
“What Trump will say, and it’s somewhat believable, really, is ‘Well, they’re all for me, or at least four out of five,'” Sabato said. “Trump has an easy way out… ‘They saw what a great job I was doing and they all lined up and we’ll all support the candidate.'”
“Also, let’s say Vance loses, but he loses by a few points,” added Sabato. “Well, that’s arguable…. It won’t reduce Trump’s support among Republican voters because his preferred choice is down two points, if that’s what happens.”
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But Vance said he didn’t expect to lose and believes Trump’s backing will help him gain the upper hand.
“A lot of people say they believe in the America First program, but don’t really have the support of the president and don’t have the trust of the people who implemented the America First program,” Vance said. “A lot of people want votes so they say certain things. But I’m the only candidate who actually has the president’s trust and approval.”