INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — J.D. Vance was enjoying a cookies-and-cream milkshake with his oldest son last week when he got the call that upended Ohio’s brawl of a Republican Senate race.
After a year of reality TV-style face-offs and other unsubtle efforts to land his endorsement, former President Donald Trump was on the other end of the line to anoint Vance, once a ferocious critic.
“I was a little caught off guard by it,” Vance recalled here days later to reporters after an event with Donald Trump Jr., whose preference for the “Hillbilly Elegy” author helped bring his father on board.
Trump’s endorsement in the closely watched May 3 primary had been in the works for days, according to previous reporting by NBC News. But more than a week later, with Trump scheduled to appear at a rally with Vance in the state Saturday, it’s clear he has shaken up what was already the nation’s most chaotic and expensive Senate race in ways that no one — not Vance, not his supporters or his opponents — expected.
Rather than clearing the field or creating a unified front of GOP support for Vance, Trump’s endorsement has escalated the tension and nastiness that from the start have served as the race’s hallmarks.
In a letter to the former president this week, several pro-Trump activists in Ohio, including one of his 2016 state directors, called the endorsement a “betrayal,” citing Vance’s past attacks on Trump and his lack of relationships with the party’s grassroots leaders. Until his Senate bid, Vance was known primarily for “Hillbilly Elegy,” his memoir-turned-Netflix movie, and for his ties to Republican mega-donor and tech executive Peter Thiel.
“I’m livid,” said Ralph King, a 2016 convention delegate for Trump who helped organize the letter. “This endorsement reeks of the swamp. Donald Trump is selling us out.”
Meanwhile, Trump and his eldest son are now tangling with other candidates and their allies.
The Club for Growth, a conservative group that supports the early front-runner Josh Mandel but had been friendly with Trump, announced it would continue airing a TV ad that emphasizes Vance’s past criticisms. Trump Jr. retaliated on Twitter by branding Mandel as “establishment,” in part because he supported 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whom Trump also endorsed that year. Those involved in the race are preparing for more pointed attacks on Mandel from Trump at Saturday’s rally, or from Trump Jr., who is scheduled to campaign with Vance again next week.
A source close to Trump Jr. who requested anonymity to discuss strategy said that Dave McIntosh, the Club for Growth president, “didn’t do Josh Mandel any favors” with its endorsement.
“Instead of just trying to push J.D. across the finish line, Don is going to do everything in his power to cut Mandel to pieces.”
The senior Trump also threatened legal action this week against Winning for Women Action, a PAC that supports Jane Timken and has emphasized her close ties to the former president. A recent ad from the PAC features footage of Trump and Timken embracing, with a narrator telling of how Trump “turned to Jane Timken” when he needed a “conservative fighter” — a reference to her successful 2017 campaign for Ohio GOP chair. In a cease-and-desist letter, Trump’s team asserted that the ad “implies” a Senate race endorsement.
In a response obtained by NBC News, an attorney for the PAC wrote that the ad, which will remain on the air, “very clearly refers to President Trump’s well-documented and substantiated past support” for Timken and acknowledged that Trump had not endorsed Timken for the Senate race.
“Instead, he inexplicably endorsed J.D. Vance,” wrote the attorney, Michael Bayes, before rehashing a 2016 interview in which Vance embraced the “Never Trump” label.
Vance has since said Trump proved him wrong and has apologized for past criticism, which Trump touched on in his endorsement announcement. Those close to Trump have characterized the former president as being drawn to the idea of elevating a vocal convert to Trumpism.
“I almost respect someone who’s actually had criticism and actually changes their mind when they see policy enacted and you can become a believer that way,” Trump Jr., responding to a question about the new “bad blood” in the primary, told reporters after the event with Vance.
How much and how fast all of this will help Vance remains hard to quantify. Vance and his allies have moved quickly to capitalize on the endorsement, including a new TV ad, the Trump Jr. visit and another cash infusion from Thiel, who has pumped $13.5 million into a Vance-aligned super PAC. Polls conducted before the Trump endorsement, including one commissioned by the super PAC, had shown Vance rising, but by no means a decisive front-runner. A fresh poll this week from the super PAC, greeted skeptically by rival campaigns, suggested Vance had taken the lead. Public polling of the race has been scarce.
None of the other three GOP hopefuls who had presented themselves as Trump loyalists have dropped out, nor has state Sen. Matt Dolan, who in an interview Tuesday contended that the endorsement reinforced his strategy of ignoring the Trump noise and focusing on local issues.
“I’ve been running for Ohio, and everything they’ve done has been” for Trump’s endorsement, said Dolan, who did not aggressively seek Trump’s support. “So with two weeks left, what do they have to run on?”
The others in the race are wrestling with what losing Trump’s endorsement means for their candidacies.
Businessman Mike Gibbons, whose self-funded TV ads helped him catch up with Mandel in the polls before a couple of shaky debate performances, said in an interview Thursday that the endorsement “changes the mix.” But he also said he believes Trump made a mistake.
Mandel, a former state treasurer whose rise in Ohio foreshadowed Trump’s in national politics, campaigned Thursday with Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general who served briefly as Trump’s first national security adviser. At a diner in Cortland, as Mandel worked through a standard bit in which he lists the names of those he considers RINOs — or Republicans In Name Only — several in the crowd chimed in to suggest an addition: “And Vance.”
“And Vance,” Mandel agreed.
But Mandel responded more carefully whenever reporters asked if the endorsement had disappointed him.
“I’m confident we’re going to win this primary on May 3, and I’m looking forward to working with President Trump to beat Tim Ryan in November,” he said each time, referring to the likely Democratic nominee.
Timken — who has closer ties to Trump than any other candidate and nearly scored his endorsement last year before advisers urged him to wait and see how the field developed — continues to emphasize her past work as state party chair. She also emphasizes her endorsement from Sen. Rob Portman, whose decision not to seek re-election this year paved the way for the hotly contested primary.
“None of that changes the fact that Donald Trump endorsed me to become chair of the Republican Party or changes the fact that I delivered Ohio for President Trump,” Timken, responding to questions about the Vance endorsement, said Thursday night after campaigning with Portman near Youngstown. “Look, J.D. Vance … was an avowed Never Trumper. If he had his way, Hillary Clinton would be president. But Ohio voters are smart and they’ll see right through it.”