Ohio and Indiana kick off the primary season on May 3 in a year when all U.S. House seats and 35 U.S. Senate spots are open, and control of both chambers is on the line.
In Ohio, former President Donald Trump endorsed first-time political candidate J.D. Vance in the crowded GOP U.S. Senate primary on April 15. The stamp of approval propelled Vance into the lead in polling after his campaign had stalled behind former Ohio state treasurer and state representative Josh Mandel and Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons for several months.
Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan, former Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken, central Ohio entrepreneur and activist Mark Pukita, and Columbus businessman Neil Patel are also in the GOP pool.
On May 1, Emerson College released a survey conducted from April 28 to April 29 that found Vance leading with 26 percent, followed by Mandel at 24 percent, Dolan at 21 percent, and Gibbons at 17 percent.
The Trafalgar Group poll conducted April 29 to May 1 showed on top the field with 26.2 percent followed by Dolan (22 percent), Mandel (20.8 percent), Gibbons (13.1 percent), Timken (5.7 percent), Pukita (1.9 percent), and Patel (1.7 percent) with 8.6 percent undecided.
Last weekend, Vance was joined on the campaign trail by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
The three America First platform proponents and staunch Trump allies promoted Vance as a political outsider who will “fight against the establishment” and “stand up for working Ohioans.”
Gaetz reminded audience members at Vance’s town hall in West Chester, Ohio, on Saturday that Trump endorsed the Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist partly because of his proficiency in debates.
“J.D. Vance put on a clinic in the debates. Donald Trump saw those debates. He saw the way J.D. was aggressive and assertive, and he had vision and energy,” Gaetz said. “This is the type of leadership we need. This is the type of leadership that Marjorie and I seek in Washington, D.C.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined Mandel at his rallies last weekend.
“I’m confident we’re going to win the primary,” Mandel said at a rally at church in Kettering, Ohio, on April 29. “We’ve done something that no Senate candidate or governor candidate in Ohio has ever done before. Rather than running the campaign through traditional Republican Party groups, we’ve run our campaign through churches.”
“The mantra of our campaign is pastors over politicians,” Mandel added. “We’ve got this army of Christian warriors throughout the state who are going to come out in droves and propel us to victory.”
Mandel’s campaign has focused on a pro-God, pro-Trump, and pro-guns platform. When asked if he was disappointed about not getting Trump’s endorsement, Mandel said he will “work with President Trump in the general election.”
“We’re going to be working together to beat Tim Ryan, beat the Democrats, but more importantly, we’re going to work together to advance the America First agenda,” Mandel said. “We’re going to stand up, and we’re going to welcome every corner of the Republican Party and every corner of the state of Ohio to join our campaign.”
Cruz said Mandel is a proven leader who has been elected multiple times, unlike Vance.
“I think Republican primary voters are tired of rolling the dice and not knowing what they’re going to get,” Cruz said. “If you look at Josh’s record, he’s got the strongest conservative record of standing and fighting for conservative principles.”
Vance has been widely criticized by opponents for harsh comments he made about Trump in 2016. Greene and Gaetz said that is in the past and Vance would be an ally for them in Congress.
“This is the whole reason why I endorsed J.D. early on, because I know he’s a business guy, he’s a family guy,” Greene said at the West Chester, Ohio, town hall. “He cares about traditional values that Americans want desperately Congress to care about.”
At campaign stops, Vance often explains how his viewpoint of Trump evolved over time.
“You know what? Facts change,” Vance said. “I saw the corruption that exists in this country. I saw Donald Trump as the only person in either party fighting against it, and I’ve been a huge supporter of Trump for the past several years.
“I just think you have to tell the truth. Right? A lot of people change their mind on Donald Trump, and I’m one of them,” Vance added. “A lot of our voters don’t mind so long as you’re just honest with them.”
Backing from pro-Trump conservatives like Greene, Gaetz, and Hawley along with Donald Trump Jr. and former president himself “sends a signal that I’m not going to stab our voters in the back,” Vance explained.
“A lot of Republicans stabbed Donald Trump in the back on core issues like trade, immigration, and foreign policy,” Vance added. “We need to send senators and representatives who will fight for the America first agenda. When I get to Washington, I will be an ally to those advancing the America First platform.”
Tension between Mandel and Vance escalated after Trump’s April 15 endorsement.
Club for Growth, a PAC that is backing Mandel, aired a television ad incorporating clips of Vance bashing Trump and calling himself a “never-Trump guy.”
Trump is “getting it wrong with J.D. Vance,” a man in the ad says.
The same ad also claims Vance said that “people who voted for Trump voted for him for racist reasons.” A man adds, “Where does he get off saying that?”
The ad took Vance’s statement out of context and misrepresented his conclusion on the matter. In an appearance at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics on February 3, 2017, Vance said:
“Race definitely played a role in the 2016 election. I think that race will always play a role in our country. It’s just sort of a constant fact of American life. And definitely some people who voted for Trump were racist, and they voted for him for racist reasons.
“I always resist the idea that the real thing driving most Trump voters was racial anxiety or racial animus partially because I didn’t see it, right. I mean, the thing that really motivated people to vote for Trump, first in the primary, and then in the general election was three words — jobs, jobs, jobs, right.
“It’s very easy for somebody like me to watch the sources of news that I watch and to only see the really offensive stuff that Trump did, replayed over and over again. But if you go to one of his rallies, it’s maybe 5 percent him being really outrageous and offensive, and 95 percent him talking about here are all the things that are wrong in your community, here’s why they’re wrong.
“And so, it’s just, it strikes me as a little bizarre to chalk it up to sort of racial animus because one, the country is less racist now than it was 15 years ago, and we weren’t electing Donald Trump 15 years ago, and two, that’s just, that wasn’t the core part of his message. And that wasn’t what a lot of his voters were really connecting with.”
Vance responded to the Club for Growth ad by proclaiming that Mandel and his allies “have declared war on President Trump and the entire MAGA movement.”
“Mandel used to be a pro-China establishment hack, and then he was a Tea Party Patriot, and then he was America First,” Vance said. “Now, having been rejected by Trump after begging for his endorsement, Mandel has returned to his roots with millions of dollars from the pro-China Club for Growth propping up his failing campaign. There is a war for the soul of the Republican Party, and I’m proud to be on the side of President Trump.”