Trump holds key rally to boost Vance in Ohio
Former President Trump will hold a rally in Ohio on Saturday night in hopes of boosting GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance ahead of the May 3 primary and proving his continued hold on the party.
Vance has been inundating Ohioans with news of Trump’s backing — announced in a statement last Friday, when many people were focused on Good Friday, Passover and Easter weekend — with ad blitzes, prominent campaign appearances and more.
The rally will be a chance for Trump to not only flex his muscles on his latest endorsement but also publicly respond to news that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) had said he wanted Trump to resign shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and, if he wants to, change the powerful Republican’s fortunes. Both men tamped down speculation on Friday night, saying their relationship remains intact, but Trump’s remarks will nonetheless likely be closely watched.
Vance was trailing rivals for the nomination before Trump’s backing, and the endorsement marks a major coup for the “Hillbilly Elegy” author. But its timing left him with just a couple of weeks to leverage it into an advantage in the front-runnerless primary.
“We’ll find out if there’s enough time to really get this thing saturated into the voters’ minds as ‘President Trump endorsed J.D. Vance,’” said one Ohio GOP strategist. “They have two weeks to saturate this thing. I don’t honestly know if they can. If I’m them, I put every single resource into TV, digital, mail, whatever it is.”
“Ideally, you would have had a month for this thing, but that’s not the case,” the person added. “So, flood the zone.”
Seemingly in recognition of the time crunch they face, Vance and his allies kicked their messaging campaign into high gear this week immediately after Easter Sunday.
Vance’s campaign rolled out a $500,000 statewide ad buy Monday focused on Trump’s backing, and a supportive super PAC followed that up days later with a seven-figure ad buy with a similar message.
The endorsement is anticipated to be the focus of more ad buys, which will be buoyed by an expected rise in donations. This week alone, tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, already one of Vance’s biggest backers, gave the pro-Vance super PAC another $3.5 million on top of the $10 million he donated last year. That donation marked a significant upgrade for a bank account that had under $300,000 left on March 31.
Vance recruited Donald Trump Jr. to host a forum with him Wednesday as well as a fundraiser and held a town hall on Newsmax, the conservative cable outlet, that same day. Trump Jr. is also expected to call into local conservative radio shows in Ohio, sign emails and texts on Vance’s behalf, and record iPhone videos for digital and text ads.
That’s all on top of the biggest stage any Republican candidate can be afforded — a rally with the former president himself, footage of which will likely be featured in upcoming ads.
The flurry of activity underscores the potential significance Trump’s backing has on the primary, which polls show is still up in the air among a handful of contenders. And while the endorsement solidifies Vance’s spot in the top tier, the extent to which he can disseminate his message could determine the ultimate victor on May 3.
“It still remains an incredibly important endorsement, but how you leverage it matters almost as much as getting it,” said one seasoned Ohio GOP operative. “If the endorsement happens but no one knows about it, it might as well not have happened.”
“It does seem like they’re taking all the right steps,” the person added.
Scant public and nonpartisan polling has been conducted since the endorsement landed last Friday evening, but one survey released this week from the pro-Vance super PAC did show Vance taking a lead with 25 percent support in the primary, a 7-point jump from March and 7 points higher than former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, his main primary rival.
The poll still showed that 23 percent of likely voters remain undecided, indicating the race remains in flux. But in a sign of Trump’s sway, when voters are informed that he backed Vance, undecided voters drop to 16 percent — and Vance’s support rises to 34 percent.
Those figures, as well as anecdotal evidence of polling bumps other Trump endorsees have enjoyed, have supporters optimistic there’s a pathway for Vance to seize new momentum in his two-week sprint.
“The reason why there’s so many undecideds and so much soft support is because, in my opinion, a large chunk of the electorate, in this race more than most other races, has been waiting for Trump to make his decision,” said one Trump World source who is supporting Vance.
“J.D. is proud to have President Trump’s endorsement. If our voters hear our message, we know that J.D. will win on May 3,” campaign spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk said.
However, if Vance is indeed the new front-runner, then he’ll likely get the front-runner treatment.
Vance’s primary opponents have fed him a steady diet of attack ads hitting him over past criticism of Trump in 2016, a playbook that isn’t expected to be reversed just because of the endorsement.
The Club for Growth, which is backing Mandel, said this week it is ramping up its spending against Vance, and Trump’s designated delegates from 2016 sent him a letter asking him to “reconsider” his endorsement.
And if getting word out about the Trump endorsement is Vance’s goal, his opponents’ aim is to blunt any impact that endorsement might have — which means matching Vance’s messaging blitz with their own.
“It’s the only thing they can do because that’s all the ads I’ve seen, it’s just using Vance’s own words against him,” said the first Ohio GOP strategist. “They have to lean into that as hard as possible.”
Observers say that strategy may lose some of its punch after Trump’s endorsement but that other candidates are clinging to hope that their early ads sufficiently defined Vance.
“I don’t think the attacks necessarily work the way they did, but it does muddy things. This is not as clean as a Trump endorsement in a field full of total unknowns or a Trump endorsement in the field in which people are neutral to the candidates,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.
Vance’s rivals, who waged a full-court press last week to head off an endorsement, have been respectful toward Trump since Friday while also dismissing the idea that the race is fundamentally changed — an argument dismissed by most as folly.
“For anybody to suggest it doesn’t matter is because they didn’t get it,” said one national GOP strategist based in Ohio. “It does matter.”
Regardless, Trump is anticipated to come out the victor of the primary irrespective of how Vance fares. The other main contenders in the race have all devoted themselves to him and his agenda, already underscoring the power of his platform. And even if Vance loses, operatives nearly unanimously say it would be because voters would still see him as insufficiently loyal to the man who is still the GOP’s de-facto leader.
“I think J.D.’s gonna win in the end. But if he did lose, the reason he would lose is because too many voters wrongly still believed he was a ‘Never Trumper.’ He’s either going to win because of Trump, or he’s going to lose because of Trump,” said the Trump World source. “But Trump wins either way, because win or lose … this just shows the power that Trump has with Republican voters.”