Former President Donald Trump Friday endorsed Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance in that state’s crowded and competitive GOP primary in a move that will likely shake the balance of the race.
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“In the great state of Ohio, the candidate most qualified and ready to win is J.D. Vance. We cannot play games. It is all about winning!” Trump said in a Friday statement.
“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 some great things about “Trump” and, like me, they love Ohio and they love our Country,” Trump added. “I’ve studied this race closely and I think J.D. is the most likely to take out the weak, but dangerous, Democrat opponent – because they will have so much money to spend.”
The endorsement comes after an all-hands effort from the other Republican candidates and many Ohio GOP officials to stop it. That effort culminated in a letter Thursday, first reported by Fox News, which urged Trump not to endorse any candidate in the race.
The letter, which Fox News obtained from a source affiliated with one of the GOP Senate campaigns, takes aim at Vance’s opposition to Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election. “We do not support JD Vance for the aforementioned reasons and would urge you not to endorse anyone in this race,” the letter to Trump states.
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Vance, the author of the book “Hillbilly Elegy,” has polled in the middle of the pack in the combustible primary to replace Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is retiring. NBC News first reported Trump was expected to endorse Vance on Thursday.
Jane Timken, a former Ohio GOP chair who is also running in the GOP Senate primary, Friday said she is still the person to win in the general election despite Trump’s endorsement.
“This race is about who can defeat Tim Ryan and retake the Republican Senate majority in November. I am that candidate and I look forward to having President Trump’s endorsement in the General Election,” she said. “While today’s announcement is disappointing, it does not change the fact that I had President Trump’s endorsement to serve as chair of the Ohio Republican Party, where I’m incredibly proud to have dismantled the Never-Trump Kasich establishment and turned Ohio into a pro-Trump, conservative stronghold.”
Most of the GOP primary has been candidates trying to convince voters they are the most closely-aligned with Trump. An official endorsement from the former president could allow Vance to move to the front of the primary pack and compete with front runners Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons.
A GOP source with knowledge of the discussions told Fox News Digital Thursday that Trump called around to donors and advisers in recent days asking their opinions about endorsing Vance. The campaigns of rivals Timken and Josh Mandel pushed back hard against that, causing Trump to temporarily hold off on an endorsement.
But the official endorsement came Friday.
Trump’s endorsement Friday also addresses past comments Vance made that were highly critical of him, which Vance’s opponents sought to leverage to prevent the former president from backing Vance.
“Like some others, 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,” Trump said. “He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race.”
The endorsement also comes just over a week before a scheduled April 23 Trump rally in Ohio. That event now could be a boon for the Vance campaign as he seeks to vault himself into the upper echelon of the race.
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A source familiar with how the endorsement went down told Fox News that Trump “thinks JD is the most with him on the issues, is the best on TV ,and just presents the best overall.”
The source added that the former president watched the clips of Mandel and Gibbons nearly come to blows at a recent debate and “thought they looked like clowns,” adding that that episode ended any possibility that Trump would endorse either Gibbons or Mandel, who in recent public opinion polls, including a Fox News poll from early March, were the slight front-runners over the other major contenders.
The source went on to tell Fox News that the former president thinks Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, the frontrunner for the Democrat Senate nomination “is going to be tough in the general and views J.D. as the only candidate who he is sure can beat him.”
The source reiterated that the debate episode between Gibbons and Mandel and the concerns about beating Ryan in November’s general election were “really what led to this endorsement of J.D.”
“With one of the nastiest and most expensive Senate races in the country already at fever pitch this week, Trump’s endorsement will only pour gasoline on this intraparty brawl and make it even harder for Republicans to coalesce around whatever out-of-touch millionaire hobbles out of this chaotic primary,” the Ohio Democratic Party said in reaction to the Trump endorsement.
The GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is on May 3.