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Trump Endorses J.D. Vance in Republican Primary for Senate in Ohio

Former President Donald J. Trump on Friday endorsed the author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance in the Republican primary election for Senate in Ohio, aiming to give the candidate a needed boost in a crowded race that will test Mr. Trump’s potency as a kingmaker in key congressional contests.

Calling Mr. Vance “our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race,” Mr. Trump said in a statement that the candidate was “strong on the Border, tough on Crime, understands how to use Taxes and Tariffs to hold China accountable, will fight to break up Big Tech, and has been a warrior on the Rigged and Stolen Presidential Election.”

The move amounted to a major bet on Mr. Vance and on Mr. Trump’s own influence over Republican primary voters in conservative-leaning Ohio, where several high-profile candidates are facing off in a contentious and at times nasty campaign to replace the retiring Senator Rob Portman, a Republican.

With the May 3 primary less than three weeks away, limited polling has shown Mr. Vance struggling to break through against rivals including Josh Mandel, a former Ohio state treasurer; Jane Timken, a former chairwoman of the Ohio Republican Party; and Mike Gibbons, a financier. No one has emerged as a clear front-runner.

The highly coveted endorsement came after weeks in which the race’s top candidates veered increasingly to the right in pursuit of Mr. Trump’s support, with tension and anticipation rising ahead of a planned visit to the state by the former president on April 23. In recent days, as news reports trickled out that Mr. Vance was likely to win Mr. Trump’s backing, supporters of other candidates engaged in last-ditch efforts to prevent the endorsement.

More than three dozen Republican county and state committee leaders urged the former president in a letter not to endorse Mr. Vance, questioning his Republican credentials and noting that he had repeatedly denounced Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

But Mr. Trump had all but decided days earlier to support Mr. Vance, according to Republicans familiar with his thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Mr. Trump called Mr. Vance shortly before the endorsement announcement was released. In his statement on Friday, Mr. Trump said, “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.”

According to a Republican familiar with Mr. Trump’s thinking, he was swayed by several factors, one of which was seeing clips of a Republican primary debate in which two of the candidates, Mr. Mandel and Mr. Gibbons, got into a toe-to-toe fight. It ended any chance that Mr. Trump, who credits the 2016 presidential debates for his victory that year, might have endorsed either of them, the Republican said. Mr. Trump was also impressed by Mr. Vance’s performance after watching the last debate.

Mr. Trump has also told allies that he believes the leading Democratic candidate, Representative Tim Ryan, will be difficult to face in the general election and that he thinks Mr. Vance can beat him.

The move carries significant risks for Mr. Trump, whose endorsements in other marquee races across the country have not yet proven decisive. In Georgia, his attempt to fuel David Perdue’s Republican primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp has largely been seen as underwhelming.

Few races across the country have captured Mr. Trump’s effect in Republican primaries in the way that Ohio’s Republican Senate campaign has, with candidates seeking to model themselves after the former president.

Most of the contenders have railed against undocumented immigrants, and only one has recognized President Biden as the nation’s legitimate leader. Two nearly came to blows during a recent debate.

Ahead of the endorsement, many Republican county party leaders expressed frustration that Mr. Trump might select Mr. Vance, the author of the best-selling 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” They noted that he had spent much of his life in San Francisco and had been critical of Mr. Trump even as they worked to elect him.

“He is the guy who worked against Trump and spoke against Trump and told everybody he didn’t vote for Trump,” said David Johnson, the chairman of the Columbiana County Republican Party, who has endorsed Ms. Timken. “He is a very bright guy and well spoken, but the concern is he wouldn’t carry the Republican Party Trump base in Ohio, and you have to have this to win.”

Mr. Johnson helped circulate the letter from Republican leaders in Ohio, which stated that Mr. Vance was not a registered Republican and provided Mr. Trump with a list of negative comments that Mr. Vance had made against him in the past, including calling him “another opioid” in 2016 and saying that he hoped Mr. Trump would be “soundly defeated” that year.

“While we were working hard in Ohio to support you and Make America Great Again, J.D. Vance was actively working against your candidacy,” the letter says. “He referred to your supporters as ‘racists’ and proudly voted for Evan McMullin in 2016.”

Asked for comment, including about the accusation that Mr. Vance is not a registered Republican, Taylor Van Kirk, a spokeswoman for the Vance campaign, said: “When he has voted in primaries, J.D. has always voted in Republican ones. He has a long public history of supporting Republican candidates, including Donald Trump in 2020.”

The campaign also pointed to polling that showed Mr. Vance in second place behind Mr. Mandel; a tweet from one Republican Party county chairman denying that he had signed the letter; and another tweet from the anti-abortion group Ohio Right to Life PAC that expressed support for a Trump endorsement of Mr. Vance.

The group’s chairman, Marshal Pitchford, wrote: “President Trump would be making a fantastic choice by endorsing @JDVance1. JD is 100% pro-life without exceptions. He will continue President Trump’s pro-life victories in the US Senate.”

In stump speeches, Mr. Vance has been quick to address the criticism that he has not always been a Trump loyalist, often saying that the best policy is honesty.

“I didn’t like Trump six years ago,” he told a small crowd of supporters this week at a brewery in Hilliard. “I did not think he was going to be a good president. I was very happy to be proven wrong.”

He added, “I was very proud to support the president over the past several years.”

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