WELLINGTON, Ohio — “Do you want to take a poll?”
The question, posed by former President Donald Trump to the crowd Saturday at his first campaign-style event since leaving the White House, probably put every Ohio Republican Senate hopeful on high alert.
The competition for even the hint of Trump’s endorsement in the still-nascent race has gotten so intense in recent weeks that the contenders had turned his visit into a shadow primary. Now here was Trump, who weeks earlier had unexpectedly thrown his support behind a North Carolina Senate candidate at a state GOP convention, seemingly on the brink of another spontaneous anointment worthy of an episode of “The Apprentice.”
Jane Timken? Trump’s mention of the former Ohio Republican Party chair drew mostly cheers but also a smattering of boos. Josh Mandel? The former state treasurer earned a louder chorus of cheers. Mike Gibbons? The investment banker merited a polite round of applause.
“I think we'll get out of this poll stuff, huh?” Trump said, sensing his audience at the Lorain County Fairgrounds wasn’t into the exercise, cutting himself off before offering them the chance to weigh in on a fourth option, businessman Bernie Moreno.
Trump’s visit — designed primarily to benefit his former aide, Max Miller, who is challenging Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January — came as a fifth candidate prepared to enter the race. J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author known more recently for his provocative tweets, has an announcement scheduled Thursday in his hometown of Middletown. He attended Saturday’s rally but was not mentioned by Trump.
Even though he wasn’t there for them — and other issues and states seem to be more top of mind — the former president’s appearance here Saturday was the can’t-miss event of the summer for state Republicans desperately competing for the primary’s ever-important Trump lane. The dynamic, particularly pronounced in Ohio, applies in other GOP primaries shaping up ahead of 2022.
“The Republican field strikes me as five kids on a playground sticking their tongues out at each other saying, ‘Donald Trump likes me more than he likes you,’” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told NBC News after a Friday news conference the state’s Democratic Party held in Cleveland to counter Trump’s visit. “I mean, that's fundamentally what the Republican field looks like.”
Republican Sen. Rob Portman, with whom Brown has forged a friendly working relationship, is not seeking another term in 2022. The GOP prospects angling to succeed him have lingered on any positive signal from Trump. No tangible or tangential connection to Trump’s political orbit is too small to emphasize. Any evidence that they have, at any time since 2015, been anything less than 100 percent supportive of Trump is a rival’s attack waiting to happen.
Some candidates approached the weekend as if it were a potential sequel to the tense, so-called “Hunger Games” sit-down they had with Trump at a Miller fundraiser three months ago in Florida.
The Friday before the rally began with more than 30 of Timken’s allies issuing a letter that proclaimed her to be Trump’s closest ally in the race. Timken also released a radio ad in which she said she “was very proud to be endorsed by President Trump to lead our party” — a reference not to the Senate race but to 2017, when Trump backed her bid for state party chair. And Vance teased an announcement for this Thursday.
Come rally day, the four declared candidates took a split approach. Timken and Gibbons stationed their aides and volunteers on the fairgrounds early to meet voters. Gibbons hosted a tailgate party with food and drink. Mandel and Moreno operatives said their campaigns opted against having a large presence, instead offering to assist Miller, mindful that he and Mike Carey, a candidate in the special August primary for Ohio’s 15th District, were the only two Trump planned to endorse that night.
Timken worked the crowd particularly hard. She rented a plane to carry a banner above the fairgrounds: “OHIO IS TRUMP COUNTRY,” followed by a prompt to her website. Hours ahead of Trump’s speech, she held a pregame gathering nearby for her grassroots volunteers before sending them out to distribute fliers on glossy cardstock heralding her as “the only true pro-Trump America First candidate” and calling attention to times her rivals criticized the former president.
Among the Senate candidates, Timken has had the closest relationship with Trump, given her past role as his handpicked state party chair through 2020, when he won Ohio by 8 percentage points. She resigned the post in February to run for the Senate. Her campaign has since locked down support from some of the state’s top GOP activists, but not from Trump.
Organizers of Saturday’s events, including a fundraiser Trump headlined for Miller before the rally, worried about aggressive attempts by one or more of the Senate hopefuls to be seen as Trump’s preferred candidate, a source familiar with the planning said. Those in charge, the source added, were extra vigilant about enforcing a cell phone ban at the fundraiser to ensure any candid photos or kind words weren’t leaked out of context.
A week earlier, Timken removed a photo of her with Trump on her website’s endorsement page after drawing ire from some Trump allies who thought it falsely conveyed his support for her Senate bid. Her campaign’s efforts Saturday helped her boost her voter contacts but also caught the attention of those who preferred the attention remain on Trump and Miller.
“Certainly the Timken campaign was working very hard to make it seem like she was also endorsed at this rally,” said the source familiar with planning.
Internal polls shared in recent weeks by the Mandel and Timken teams showed Mandel, who has higher name recognition after two terms in elected statewide office, leading a prospective multicandidate GOP field. Both surveys placed Timken in second, though hers had her trailing Mandel by a smaller margin. The others are largely unknown, but Gibbons won 38 of Ohio’s 88 counties in an unsuccessful 2018 Senate primary. All of the declared candidates, plus Vance, are independently wealthy or have strong fundraising connections, setting up what could be an expensive race.
Rep. Tim Ryan is the only Democrat who has launched a Senate campaign.
Though all of the GOP hopefuls have gone out of their way to cozy up to Trump, their claims of loyalty are complicated. Mandel and Timken initially supported others in the 2016 primaries. More recently, Timken defended Gonzalez’s impeachment vote before flip-flopping. Moreno called Trump a “maniac” and “lunatic” early in 2016.
Vance was also on record criticizing Trump that year and voted for independent Evan McMullin. Gibbons served as a Trump finance co-chair in 2016 but until his 2018 Senate run was not a public-facing politico. In an interview with Jewish Insider last month, Gibbons presented himself as a “Trump supporter” without the “cult of personality.”
“Everything’s been twisted,” Gibbons said Saturday when asked about the jockeying for Trump’s support. “I don’t have to erase anything from my tweets or Facebook.”