There’s the Ohio Republican who goes on TV a lot, and who Donald Trump thinks is hot. Then there’s the top-tier candidate whose sex life the ex-president regularly gossips about, all the while accusing him of being “fucking weird.”
And then there’s the newly anointed frontrunner in the race who, according to a person close to the former president, Trump couldn’t even pick “out of a line-up.” (He’s scheduled to go to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring this week.)
No one knows which candidate, if any, Trump will endorse. But one thing is for sure: Trump loves how thirsty they all are for his attention.
The four leading Republicans running for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat, being vacated by retiring Sen. Rob Portman, have spent the last year in a relentless contest to out-Trump and out-sycophant each other. With weeks to go before the primary, the race has become one of the most shamelessly MAGA contests in the country, and its outcome could cement that the party’s future remains indisputably dominated by Donald J. Trump.
The former president—whose interest in the state this year is so great that he has meetings devoted to, or touching on, the Ohio race nearly every week— is “really enjoying how everyone is trying to suck his dick” in the Buckeye State primary, according to a source who has repeatedly spoken to Trump about that race in recent months.
For now, those close to Trump say he still sees no personal benefit in endorsing anybody in this primary, especially when there hasn’t been a consistent frontrunner in recent weeks, and certainly not one who Trump even likes.
The one who Trump thinks is hot is J.D. Vance, the Yale-educated author and Trump critic turned lib-trolling, right-wing populist firebrand. And yet, Vance is having a hard time winning over the MAGA faithful in Ohio in part thanks to his scathing comments about Trump from 2016, and he is struggling to have a breakout moment in the polls of the primary, despite his aggressive embrace of Trumpism.
The one who Trump gossips about as “fucking weird” is Josh Mandel, a GOP wunderkind in Ohio who has been at the top of several polls after dutifully running perhaps the most hard-right MAGA campaign in the field.
And the relatively anonymous frontrunner—at least, apparently, to the former president—is Mike Gibbons, a wealthy Cleveland banker who came in second in the Ohio GOP’s last primary for Senate, in 2018. This time around, the millions he’s poured into his America First-themed campaign have translated into first-place finishes in the most recent polls.
Another candidate trying to claim the Trump mantle is Jane Timken, the former chair of the Ohio GOP, who has touted her connections to the former president at every turn—including a new ad that seemingly includes every public remark that Trump has made about her.
A wildcard is Matt Dolan, a state senator and scion of the wealthy family that owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, who is alone in not aggressively seeking Trump’s endorsement. According to sources close to Trump, that has inspired the furious ex-president to obsess over trying to defeat him.
Together, the candidates—and the outside groups backing them—have spent a staggering $30 million. And there’s still plenty of time before the May primary.
But despite all the spending, the biggest prize in the primary right now is something that money can’t buy: Trump’s endorsement. And the four MAGA-aligned candidates are waging a bitter shadow primary in hopes of nabbing it.
With such tight margins between them, Trump’s seal of approval because it could provide the decisive edge in a tough race. But that’s also one of the reasons why it may never come.
More than anything else, Trump wants his endorsement to be seen as an ironclad guarantee of victory. Given the dynamics of the contest, there’s a real risk that whoever Trump might endorse would end up losing anyway. And for the ex-president, that risk may be too much: Backing the wrong horse in such a high-profile race could make his brand look that much weaker and threaten his hold on the GOP ahead of a likely 2024 presidential run.
Some operatives close to the race privately believe that Trump might give his seal of approval to more than one candidate, as a way of hedging his bets and placating various Trumpworld factions.
The way that the race has carved up Trumpland into rival camps could provide another incentive for him not to pick just one candidate.
Gibbons has no less than six former Trump campaign employees on his payroll, including Bill Stepien, his 2020 campaign manager.
Timken brought on Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, and David Bossie—all seasoned veterans of the 2016 campaign—as “senior strategists.”
Vance hired Trump’s campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, and his No. 1 backer is Peter Thiel, the billionaire conservative close to Trump. He also touted the endorsement of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), whose support has become the next best thing to Trump’s nod for many Republican primary candidates.
Mandel has not hired any Trumpworld figures, but he touts an endorsement from Michael Flynn, the ex-president’s scandal-plagued former national security adviser. And Mandel’s political action committee has spent over $30,000 on fundraising events at Mar-a-Lago last year, making him a fixture at the club.
And Mandel is a regular—even when Trump hasn’t invited him.
In late February, Mandel and one of his top allies, Club for Growth president David McIntosh, scored a private meeting with Trump and, according to Politico, unsuccessfully “pitched him on endorsing Mandel.”
But shortly after that meeting wrapped, Trump was once again off bad-mouthing Mandel behind his back. In this case, it was Trump telling several advisers that he was caught off-guard by Mandel’s presence, and that he was hoping to speak to only McIntosh, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast.
The sources said that following the meeting, Trump was visibly annoyed that Mandel had come along, and complained that he’d been given such short notice of the candidate’s inclusion in the face-to-face.
Another complicating factor in the endorsement race: that each of the candidates trying to win over the ex-president brings some kind of Trump-related baggage to the frenzy.
Vance has the most, by far. Nowadays, Trump has warmed to Vance, even if he doesn’t ultimately endorse him. According to two people who have heard him say it, Trump has, on multiple occasions in recent months, specifically referred to Vance as “a handsome son of a bitch,” who Trump enjoys watching on Tucker Carlson Tonight and other Fox News shows.
Vance, for his part, has made a concerted effort as part of his media strategy to frequently appear on Fox programs, in part because he knows it’s a good way to get his message directly to Trump, albeit through the TV.
But in 2016, the acclaimed author was a vocal critic of Trump, calling his views “reprehensible.” He openly boasted about not voting for Trump in 2016, instead casting a vote for the third-party conservative Evan McMullin.
Polling has found that reputation has stuck, despite Vance’s desperate attempts to reinvent himself. A recent memo from Fabrizio, reported by Politico, said that Vance’s reputation as a Trump critic has only grown since he entered the race.
Timken, meanwhile, can credibly claim she has personally done more for Trump than any other candidate in the field. As the Ohio GOP chair, she raised millions for his campaigns and traveled the state stumping for him. Part of her campaign pitch is that she “cleaned up” the organization—in her telling, an “anti-Trump mess” left by former Gov. John Kasich.
But Timken has struggled to shake the toxic branding of being “establishment.” Rivals have sought to make her defense of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), who voted to impeach Trump and later announced his retirement from the House, into a disqualifying sin.
Even Gibbons, who some Republicans view as a blank slate, has some of his own MAGA apostasy, even if relatively minor. He once warned about the “cult of personality” around Trump in the GOP.
Gibbons is—like his competitors—doing the best to atone for his comment by buttering Trump up. According to a source familiar with the matter, Gibbons is scheduled to meet with the ex-president at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday afternoon. Campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten did not deny the upcoming meeting when asked by The Daily Beast.
But for the vast majority of this primary, Trump has viewed Gibbons, essentially, as a nonentity. One person close to Trump remarked that the former president “couldn’t pick him out of a lineup,” and that Gibbons had a long way to go to convince Trump that he’s his guy.
Cotten responded that Gibbons was “the Ohio Finance Co-chair under President Trump and has been honored to have the opportunity to meet the President on a number of occasions.”
"Mike is the America First candidate in this race who is not afraid to stand up to the swamp, and that’s why we are winning,” she said.
Of the four, Mandel might have the least baggage in Trumpworld’s eyes. A political chameleon, the longtime fixture in Ohio politics—who lost to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio’s 2012 Senate race—has calculated his moves carefully over the last few years. That has given at least some room for his rivals to strike at his Trump cred.
In 2016, Mandel’s support for Trump was tepid. His first choice was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). After Trump won the party’s nomination, Mandel said his first priority was re-electing Portman to the Senate. Then, in 2018, Mandel backed out of a rematch against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), citing his then-wife’s health issues.
Timken has attacked Mandel on these grounds, arguing that he has not done enough to help Trump and Republicans in Ohio.
The constant backbiting between the four pro-Trump candidates—and the time and resources they are spending in hopes of getting Trump’s approval—is beginning to worry Ohio Republicans who believe this seat should be a lock for them in 2022.
The winner will likely face Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who has represented northeast Ohio’s industrial heartland in Congress for two decades. He would be a distinct underdog in increasingly red Ohio, but national Democrats are nevertheless keeping a close eye on the race.
“It’s a real mess on the ground,” said one senior aide to an Ohio Republican official who is neutral in the race. “Meanwhile, Tim Ryan is just plugging along.”
The four candidates in the MAGA lane are essentially devoting time and resources to an entirely separate primary contest, said one D.C. operative with deep ties to the state: “Whatever the hell is going on at Mar-a-Lago… who’s down there, who’s meeting with Trump, here’s why you shouldn’t pick J.D., or Jane, or Josh, or Mike.”
The one Republican candidate who is not playing in the Mar-a-Lago primary is Dolan, the state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team.
Dolan is not necessarily a Trump critic. He’s just campaigning as if there are other things beyond the ex-president—the economy, infrastructure, crime—that will influence how Republicans choose a candidate.
It’s an interesting experiment in today’s GOP. If recent polls are any indication, it’s not succeeding; currently, Dolan is polling near the back of the pack, though he is not not far behind Timken.
Naturally, however, Trump has been fixated on taking down Dolan, and, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, has this year floated a novel scenario: In the event that he doesn’t endorse any particular candidate in this race, Trump may at least endorse against Dolan.
“I have heard [Trump] say he might announce ‘Anyone but Dolan’ is the way to go, but that was just one of a good number of ideas he kicked around,” this individual recounted.
If no other candidates drop out, and Trump doesn’t put his thumb on the scale for one, Dolan could potentially have a path. With substantial personal wealth, Dolan has plenty of resources to make his case to voters on TV and elsewhere.
“Matt Dolan is running in the Ohio lane of the Ohio Republican Primary,” said Chris Maloney, who is working for Dolan. “The other candidates have been so obsessed and distracted with appeasing interests outside Ohio, they have clearly forgot what they are supposed to be fighting for in Ohio.”