ATHENS, Ohio—In the leadup to Easter Sunday, storms brewed across the Buckeye State. With early voting underway, the candidates in Ohio’s crowded GOP primary for the open U.S. Senate seat dodged tornado warnings in southwest Ohio and streaking rain showers in the northeast as they fanned across the state to make final pitches to voters.
Other storm clouds hung over the campaign trail: rumors that former President Donald Trump would end his months of neutrality and give Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance his highly coveted endorsement.
Jane Timken, the former Republican state party chairwoman who had been jostling with Vance for third place in polling the last few weeks, sported a somewhat forced brightness at a Thursday meet-and-greet with sponsors in the college town of Athens.
She had been on the phone with Trump that week, but her campaign was close-lipped about details. Reporting from NBC News filled those in: Both Timken and former state treasurer Josh Mandel were trying to get him to hold off on weighing in for Vance.
After all, the primary was less than three weeks away. And Timken had gotten the endorsement of GOP Sen. Rob Portman, whose retirement announcement kicked off the current scramble.
In an interview with The Dispatch, Timken said that the spectacle other candidates had made of themselves during the highly combative campaign could jeopardize the seat for Republicans in November. The campaign season has featured bitter insults as candidates have sought to win favor with Trump—and voters.
“I have a history of uniting the party,” Timken said. “And you know, I’ve always said we can have our disagreements, but we need to come together.”
“Look,” she added, “I’m the only candidate that President Trump’s endorsed before”—a reference to Trump’s endorsement of her when she ran for chair of the state’s party.
Twenty-four hours later, that was no longer the case.
On Friday, Trump’s team issued a statement sealing the deal: “In the Great State of Ohio, the candidate most qualified and ready to win in November is J.D. Vance. We cannot play games. It is all about winning!”
He added that it had been a tough choice: “This is not an easy endorsement for me to make because I like and respect some of the other candidates in the race—they’ve said great things about ‘Trump’ and, like me, they love Ohio and love our country.”
Ohio went decisively for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, moving the state away from its reputation as a Midwestern swing state. And most of the candidates have sought to stay as close as possible to Trump in hopes it would boost their credibility among voters. State Sen. Matt Dolan alone remains a sharp exception. While he has not run as an anti-Trump candidate, he’s shrugged his shoulders over the president’s refusal to endorse him.
It’s unclear what caused Vance to win Trump over in the crowded field of competitors. Besides Timken and Mandel, millionaire investment banker Mike Gibbons, Dolan, businessman Neil Patel, and technology entrepreneur Mark Pukita are also seeking the nomination.
One likely factor: Vance’s recent performance in the polls. No candidate has consistently led, for much of the race, and Vance remained mired in third or fourth place. But things have looked sunnier for him the last month.
An early March Fox News survey found Gibbons and Mandel within 2 points of each other at 22 and 20 percent, respectively. Vance trailed in at 11 percent, and Timken had 9 percent. But that poll also found that almost a quarter of likely GOP primary voters were undecided.
It’s unclear whether polls will soon show another bump, courtesy of the endorsement, in Vance’s favor.
Many Trump allies, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, and Donald Trump Jr., had all encouraged Trump to endorse Vance.
Some local Republicans, though, tried to ward an endorsement off: 42 local GOP leaders signed a letter urging Trump not to endorse Vance.
“While we were working hard in Ohio to support you and Make America Great Again, JD Vance was actively working against your candidacy,” the letter, obtained by Politico, reads. It also included a list of anti-Trump comments Vance had made in the past.
Vance had previously referred to himself as “Never Trump,” called the former president an “idiot” and an “opioid” who was “leading the white working class to a very dark place.” He supported Never Trump candidate Evan McMullin in 2016.
“Like some others,” Trump said in his endorsement, “J.D. Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades.”
Vance wasn’t the only Senate candidate who had offended Trump at some point in the last few years.
Dolan’s initial offenses were those of his family, who own the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. The same day Dolan launched his campaign, Trump released a statement attacking him for his family’s decision to change the name of the team from the Cleveland Indians. “I know of at least one person in his race who I won’t be endorsing,” he said. (Dolan said he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the team.)
In February of last year, Timken seemed to defend Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She later walked it back and called on him to resign.
Mandel supported Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016. He’d also lost a bid for Senate in 2012 against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. In 2018, he dropped out of another bid for the Senate. In the wake of endorsements that had backfired in Pennsylvania and elsewhere due to personal scandals, Mandel’s recent divorce and reports that he is dating someone on his campaign staff also raised concerns.
And as Trump’s statement also noted, Vance has since changed his stance. His campaign has heavily focused on culture war issues and the populism that’s a centerpiece of the America First platform.
At an April 12 town hall at a Hilton Garden Inn in Toledo (three days before the Trump endorsement), Vance made sure to address the “elephant in the room” before taking questions from the crowd of around 35.
“The accusation is that I hate Donald Trump, right, because I said something six or seven years ago that was critical of Donald Trump, that I actually hate his guts, that I didn’t support him and I don’t think that he was a good president. Of course that’s all a lie,” he said. “Let me just address the issue. I didn’t like Donald Trump six years ago.”
A number of things—Vance cited Trump’s policies on the economy, abortion, and taxes—had changed his mind, he said.
At least initially, none of the other candidates slighted for the endorsement looked to take Trump’s advice to rally behind Vance and bow out.
Mike Gibbons tweeted that “while I would have loved the endorsement, I continue to be in a strong position in this race because I have been an America First champion and fighter.”
Dolan said in a statement to The Dispatch that “from Day One, I have said this race needs to be about Ohio. Jane Timken, Josh Mandel, Mike Gibbons and JD Vance have instead embraced lies and undermined the Constitution to go all-in for one endorsement. They cheapened their candidacies and the integrity of the office they wish to attain with campaigns that are now in chaos as ballots are being cast. Make no mistake, this is how they will serve if handed power.”
The candidate who wins the plurality of votes on May 3 will move on to the general election in November. Most likely, he or she will square up against Democrat Tim Ryan, currently a member of the U.S. House and a former presidential candidate. Ryan faces attorney Morgan Harper and Traci Johnson in the Democratic primary.
With the primary just days away, Vance will try to cash in the endorsement for all it’s worth.
Vance unrolled a new advertisement highlighting Trump’s pick and trumpeted the news on Twitter: “I’m incredibly honored to have President Trump’s support. He was an incredible fighter for hard working Americans in the White House, he will be again, and I’ll fight for the America First Agenda in the Senate.”
Vance is also promoting a town hall in Cleveland Wednesday that Donald Trump Jr. will headline alongside him. The former president, meanwhile, is scheduled to descend on the Buckeye State for a Saturday rally in Delaware, Ohio, on behalf of Max Miller, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House.
It’s unclear whether the endorsement will be what Vance needs to get across the finish line, but he seems to be betting it will move voters in his favor. A visit to Vance’s Twitter page shows he has updated his banner image to feature the two words: “Trump Endorsed.”