In recent days, Trump has begun calling donors and advisers to get their opinions on endorsing the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, but he held off under intense pressure from the rival Republican campaigns of Josh Mandel and Jane Timken, sources said.
"The Mandel people hit the roof," one Republican with knowledge of the discussions told NBC News, noting that Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan tried to dissuade Trump from the endorsement.
The May 3 primary is winner-take-all — meaning the candidate with the plurality of votes moves on to the general election in November.
Though Trump’s press shop had already written up an endorsement of Vance, a source close to Mandel’s campaign said Thursday that it threw up a last-minute obstacle for the former president to consider: an internal Republican poll conducted by Mandel’s campaign showing that, with Trump’s endorsement, its candidate would be in front with 33 percent of the vote, followed by Matt Dolan and Mike Gibbons tied at 15 percent, with Vance and Timken both at 9 percent.
The poll showed that, even with Trump's endorsement, Vance would rise to 15 percent support but was still in a three-way tie for second, with Mandel marginally in the lead at 19 percent — a sign that Trump's endorsement had weight but was not determinative.
A spokesperson for Trump could not be reached for comment.
Trump has been concerned with Vance, who criticized the former president bitterly in 2016. Vance is also running in about third or fourth place in recent public polling and has barely cracked double digits — a major worry for Trump, who doesn’t want to waste his endorsement, the sources said.
Dolan is the only candidate who is running on a platform that does not seem to be courting the support of the former president. That has bothered Trump immensely and has pushed him to want to pick a winner to ensure that a non-Trump acolyte doesn't win a state that he won handily in 2020 and 2016.
In public polling, Mandel and Gibbons lead the pack with roughly 20 percent of the vote each.
But Vance isn’t so far behind in the public polling that he can’t catch up. And those who have spoken to Trump or his advisers in recent days say he sees the most growth opportunity with Vance and a chance to make a real difference.
Former Trump campaign and White House adviser Michael Caputo, who spoke with the former president recently, wouldn’t disclose the nature of his private discussion but said on Twitter that the reports of Trump leaning toward Vance are “consistent with my conversations.”
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump confidant as well, telegraphed word of the Trump endorsement earlier in the day by saying on Twitter that “JD looks like a guy who would disrupt the establishment, not join it.”
After NBC News reported that Trump planned to endorse Vance, a slate of GOP officials in Ohio wrote a letter to Trump urging him to “not endorse anyone in this race.” The officials listed why they thought Trump should hold back on formally endorsing Vance, citing among other things the candidate's remarks about Trump in 2016.
Vance's supporters, who include the former president's son and namesake, were hoping Trump would have made the endorsement Thursday, when his office announced he was holding an Ohio rally on April 23, just 10 days before the primary.
“Nothing is final until it’s final. So Trump can always change his mind,” said one source who had spoken recently to Trump about the Ohio race. “But he already kicked the tires on everyone, and he’s ready to go with Vance. It’s either Vance or nobody. And it’s only nobody if somehow the other campaigns can get him to hold off.”
A source familiar with Trump's thinking said he also has an affinity for Timken, the former state GOP party chair whom he helped ascend to leadership in Ohio in 2017, and he views her as an ally in the state.
This week, there was a potential meeting set for Timken at Mar-a-Lago, the source said, but those plans failed to come to fruition as Trump openly discussed his intention to endorse Vance.
CORRECTION (April 14, 2022, 6:13 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Rep. Jim Jordan’s involvement in the Ohio Senate GOP primary. He remains neutral; he has not endorsed Josh Mandel.