CORTLAND, Ohio (Reuters) – Josh Mandel, a leading contender to win the nomination in the U.S. Senate Republican primary battle in Ohio, expressed confidence this week that victory was within his grasp as he campaigned with General Michael Flynn, an ally of Donald Trump.
But for Mandel, Flynn was a consolation prize. In a contest that has been defined by which candidate could prove the most fealty to the former president, Mandel has lost the golden ticket: Trump’s endorsement.
Trump’s announcement last week that he was endorsing Mandel’s rival, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, has upended the race and turned the May 3 primary into one of the biggest tests of Trump’s power to elevate candidates of his choosing as he considers another run for the White House.
A win by Vance, who like Trump was a newcomer to politics and has been trailing in the polls, would demonstrate that the former president’s hold on his party’s base remains ironclad, likely discouraging Republicans who are considering challenging him should he run again.
But some Ohio Republicans warn that a Vance victory would endanger the party’s hold on the seat of retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman, making it more difficult for the party to win control of the U.S. Senate and block Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
More than 40 Republican officials wrote to Trump earlier this month urging him to not endorse Vance, arguing that his history of criticizing Trump would be fodder for his Democratic opponent and discourage Republican turnout in the November general election.
In 2016, before he entered politics, Vance called Trump an “opioid” who was “leading the white working-class to a very dark place.”
At a campaign event in suburban Cleveland this week with Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., Vance addressed that past criticism, saying, “I did not think Trump was going to be a great president. Boy, was I ever proven wrong.”
After the event, Vance told Reuters that Trump’s endorsement has had “a profound effect on the race.” Vance and Trump Jr. held a fundraiser before the event that raised $50,000, an aide said.
Vance will appear at a rally Trump is holding in Ohio on Saturday.
A poll conducted by the Trafalgar Group shortly before Trump’s endorsement found Mandel in the lead with 28% of the vote and Vance behind at 22%. But more than half of respondents said an endorsement by Trump would make them more likely to support that candidate.
Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election but the state still has one Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown.
Trump has made some other longshot bets of late, endorsing TV personality Mehmet Oz in the Senate race in Pennsylvania, angering some Republicans there. His strategy sometimes seems at odds with that of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who prefers to back establishment-oriented candidates he feels have the best chance of appealing to a wider swath of voters.
Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” was a best-seller that documented the descent of factory towns in states like Ohio into poverty and drug abuse. He has styled himself as angry populist in the Trumpian mold, focusing on issues such as trade and immigration.
He is backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, who has poured more than $13 million into a political action committee supporting Vance.
After the Cleveland event, Deborah Damas, 67, a Republican from Parma, Ohio, said Trump’s endorsement had influenced her to support Vance in the primary. “100 percent,” Damas said.
Mandel, an ex-U.S. Marine and former state treasurer, had been considered the front-runner for much of the race and had long sought Trump’s blessing. He has enthusiastically backed Trump’s bogus claim that the 2020 election was stolen by Biden.
He has made a series of provocative statements on social media, including comparing the federal government to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo secret police and calling Afghan refugees “alligators” who would assault American women. Last month, he nearly got into a fistfight at a debate with rival candidate Mike Gibbons.
“In politics, boldness is rewarded. Clumsiness is penalized,” Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based Republican strategist, said of Mandel.
“When you find a candidate who is bold and clumsy, being bold gets you three steps forward, clumsy takes you four steps back.”
When Mandel campaigned at a diner in Cortland this week, Vance’s name was roundly booed when mentioned.
Mandel refused to speculate on why Trump had not chosen him. “I’m more confident than ever I’m going to win,” he told reporters.
(Reporting by James Oliphant,; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)