SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 06:  Rise of the Rest Seed Fund managing partner J.D. Vance speaks onstage during Day 2 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
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02:44 - Source: CNN
Columbus, Ohio CNN  — 

Former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance in Ohio’s Republican Senate contest has shaken up the race, scrambling alliances and flipping rivals’ strategies in the final days before the May 3 primary.

“It’s created a bit of chaos in the race, and it continues to be a jump ball,” said Jane Timken, the former state GOP chairwoman and one of seven primary candidates looking to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Only one Republican candidate, state Sen. Matt Dolan, has refused to court Trump and has rejected the former president’s lies about widespread election fraud. Timken, along with former state treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons, had hoped to win Trump’s endorsement.

But instead, Trump chose Vance, the author and venture capitalist with a long history of sharp criticism of the former President. Trump used a rally with Vance over the weekend at the Delaware County Fairgrounds to offer the author a defense against what could be his biggest political liability in a Republican primary.

“He’s the guy that said some bad s*** about me. He did. But you know what? Every one of the others did also. In fact, if I went by that standard, I don’t think I’d have ever endorsed anyone in the country,” Trump said.

He called Vance a “fearless MAGA fighter” and said, “I want to pick somebody that’s going to win, and this man is going to win.”

The crowd at the Trump rally north of Columbus offered a glimpse, though, at why Trump’s endorsement of Vance might not be enough to clinch the primary.

Stan Johnson, a 48-year-old retiree from Columbus, said he’s “got to part ways” with Trump on the Senate primary, and will vote for Mandel. “I just think Josh Mandel is truthful in what he says,” Johnson said. “People call him a grifter – they called Trump a grifter. I don’t think that’s what he’s going for. I really think he cares about Ohio.”

He pointed to Vance’s previous criticism of Trump – words that are now featured in ads aired by his rivals and their supporters across the Ohio airwaves.

“What really rubs me wrong about him is he really went against Trump in 2016. I don’t know where his loyalty lies,” Johnson said.

Others said Trump’s endorsement of Vance would be the deciding factor in their Senate GOP Primary vote.

Connie Gleason, a 55-year-old waitress and retired state worker who lives near Hamilton, said she always supports candidates Trump endorses.

“Whomever my president endorses is who I will vote for. My faith is 100% in our president,” Gleason said.

Fallout from Trump’s endorsement

Vance has edged into the lead since winning Trump’s endorsement, a Fox News poll released Tuesday showed. The survey found Vance with 23% support among primary voters, ahead of Mandel at 18%, Gibbons at 13%, Dolan at 11% and Timken at 6%. One-quarter of those likely to vote in the primary are undecided, the poll found.

Vance’s support had doubled since Fox News’ previous poll in March, underscoring how much Trump’s endorsement had upended a race that Mandel and Gibbons had previously led.

Both had hoped for Trump’s support, or for Trump to stay out of the race. Now that he’s waded into it, though, Vance’s rivals and the groups supporting them are shifting their strategies.

Gibbons, whose self-funded TV ads had propelled him, had offered himself as a candidate with similarities to Trump: both of them businessmen, neither of them politicians. Now, Gibbons is downplaying those similarities.

“I mean, I think I’m a very different person,” Gibbons said in an interview before a speech to young Republicans in Columbus. “I am a solid conservative; philosophical conservative. I think the party is trying to find its way right now, and there’s a lot of different camps out there.”

Gibbons stuck by his long-standing praise for Trump’s tenure in the White House. But he said he that Trump “doesn’t have a great track record of picking people.”

“I think he did things that make him the greatest president of my lifetime, and I’m not going to change my mind on that. It’s what he did, not the people he hired or what he said, that matter,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think it’s going to have the impact that everybody thought it would.”

Trump’s endorsements have not always panned out. In March, he withdrew his support for Rep. Mo Brooks’ Senate bid in Alabama, saying Brooks had gone “woke” because he said there was no way to overturn the 2020 election results. In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, Trump had initially endorsed Sean Parnell – who later dropped out amid abuse allegations that emerged in a custody battle with his ex-wife. He then backed celebrity heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, a choice that was met with backlash from some on the right. In Ohio, a frenetic last-ditch campaign to stop Trump from endorsing Vance failed.

Mandel, in turn, has called in other far-right validators. He campaigned last week with Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser and is an ardent supporter of the former president. He’s also scheduled to campaign with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the race’s closing weekend.

“Nobody defines Josh Mandel but Josh Mandel and that’s a really strong leader characteristic,” Flynn said of Mandel at a campaign stop last week in Brunswick, The Gazette of Medina County, Ohio, reported.

Timken, meanwhile, touts the endorsement of Portman, the retiring senator. And while she doesn’t have Trump’s endorsement, she regularly brags that Trump elevated her to the state party chair role while he was in office.

Mason Lyles, a 31-year-old Columbus resident who was volunteering for Timken’s campaign’s door-knocking efforts in Columbus, said he was looking for an approach similar to what worked for Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won last year’s governor’s race in Virginia with a campaign that focused on education and Covid-19 policies and won back many of the suburban voters who had fled the GOP in recent years.

“There’s a lot of this celebrity politics going on, and I don’t like the celebrity politics because I think it distracts from doing the job and it also helps codify more power in an elite class,” Lyles said.

Ad wars heat up

GOP spending in the race is up to $65.7 million so far.

Despite Trump’s endorsement of Vance, the conservative Club for Growth is aggressively pumping money into an effort to bolster Mandel – and take down Vance. One 30-second TV spot features Vance’s 2016 criticism of Trump, including him at one point saying he might vote for Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported that after seeing the Club for Growth’s ad, Trump had an intermediary send a message for McIntosh: “Go f*** yourself.”

Vance, who has been barnstorming the state with Donald Trump Jr., is benefiting from a $3.5 million investment by tech mogul Peter Thiel into a super PAC supporting Vance’s campaign – which has so far spent $1.7 million itself.

Mandel’s campaign, for its part, is using Cruz in a new ad. “End Biden’s inflation. Send Josh Mandel to Washington,” the senator says in the spot. Mandel has spent about $6.1 million.

Dolan, the only candidate in the race who has rejected Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud, has spent $9.1 million in ads and is hitting Vance in online videos for his comment at the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”

But Dolan’s TV ads largely seek to position himself as an above-the-fray alternative to the demolition derby of Trump-aligned candidates. In one new spot, he mentions Mandel and Gibbons standing face-to-face at an early primary debate.

“My opponents are focused on name-calling instead of results. They attack and insult each other – even had a near first-fight,” Dolan says in the spot. “So forget all their nonsense. This is your Senate seat, because Ohio is what matters.”

Gibbons – who has spent the most at $13.4 million, fueled by his own personal wealth – takes swings at all of his rivals in an ad his campaign launched in recent days – including Dolan, who he said in a recent tweet “isn’t conservative, not even close.”

“You can’t believe them. Josh Mandel is a politician; J.D. Vance, a celebrity. They made their careers creating nothing but their own image. I made mine creating jobs,” Gibbons says in the ad.

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.