COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Former President Donald Trump is endorsing “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance in Ohio’s competitive Republican Senate primary, ending months of jockeying in a race where his backing could be pivotal.
In a statement, Trump described Vance as “the candidate most qualified and ready to win in November.”
“We cannot play games. It is all about winning!” he wrote.
The decision is a major blow for Vance’s top rivals — former state treasurer Josh Mandel, investment banker Mike Gibbons and former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken — who have been locked in a heated and contentious race for both the nomination and Trump’s backing in a primary that is now less than three weeks away.
On Thursday night, dozens of Republican leaders in Ohio mounted a last-minute effort to urge Trump not to endorse Vance following a news report that said Trump had made a decision and was planning to go with Vance.
While Gibbons and Mandel had been leading in recent polls, officials backing various candidates had long conceded that Trump’s coveted support would likely push his pick to the front of the pack in a race that has revolved, to a large extent, around him.
In addition to trips down to Mar-a-Lago, the candidates and their affiliated super PACs have spent millions trying to present themselves as Trump’s favored option and paint one another as insufficiently loyal to the former president, who remains deeply popular with the GOP base, despite being impeached twice, and won the state in both 2016 and 2020.
But Vance, in particular, has also come under fire for old audio and since-deleted tweets in which he called himself a “never-Trump guy,” called Trump an idiot, and said he might have to hold his nose and vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Vance has since changed his tune, saying he regrets his past comments. In the race, he has closely aligned himself with the former president, making frequent appearances on Fox News and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast, where he has echoed Trump’s rhetoric on issues including immigration.
Trump, in his statement, acknowledged that Vance “may have said some not so great things about me in the past.” But he said that Vance, with whom he has been in frequent touch, “gets it now, and I have seen that in spades.”
Trump also referenced the other candidates who have gone to extreme length to win his backing. “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 great things about ‘Trump,’” he wrote, while calling on his supporters to unite behind Vance.
Trump had discussed the Vance endorsement with allies as recently at this week, according to two people familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, and moved forward despite a desperate, last minute effort to change his mind by rivals and some party leaders.
While Trump had long been worried about Vance’s standing in the polls, the two been in frequent contact, speaking regularly. Trump, an avid TV viewer, also felt that Vance presented best on television and was impressed with his performance during the the last GOP debate.
He was equally turned off by what one person described as the “debate debacles” between Mandel and Gibbons, in which the two men nearly came to blows.
In an interview earlier this week, Vance, who had the support of Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that he wasn’t sure whether Trump would end up endorsing in the race, but thought if he did it would come before Trump returns to the state for a rally on April 23.
“I think that he will. I’m not sure that he will,” said Vance. “He wants to endorse the person he thinks can beat Tim Ryan. He also wants to endorse a winner.”
The winner of the May 3 primary is likely to face Democratic frontrunner, U.S. Rep Tim Ryan, in November for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
Timken, in a statement, called the decision “disappointing,” but said, “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.”
Senate candidate Morgan Harper, a former consumer protection attorney facing Ryan in the Democratic primary, said, “The Republican candidates for Senate have been more focused on getting Trump’s approval than on what matters to everyday Ohioans. It’s resulted in dangerous and extreme rhetoric, and it’s exactly why Democrats can’t afford to nominate an establishment candidate who will lose in the fall. We need to think outside the box if we are going to beat them.”
It’s the second long-awaited endorsement that Trump has made in Senate races this week as primary elections draw closer. Last Saturday, he announced he was backing Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s May 17 Republican primary. That decision came months after Trump’s first endorsed candidate in the race, Sean Parnell, withdrew amid allegations of abuse from his estranged wife. ___
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.