COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — High-profile surrogates for Republicans running in Ohio's hotly contested Senate primary are fanning out across the state or holding other events to give their endorsed candidates a last-minute boost ahead of Tuesday's election.
Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, along with Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, were among the conservative emissaries making final pitches in the critical Senate race. Former President Donald Trump, who held a rally in Ohio late last month to boost candidate JD Vance, botched Vance's name at an event in Nebraska over the weekend while trying to tout his endorsements nationwide.
The involvement of prominent surrogates in the primary shows the high stakes of Tuesday's election, when seven candidates are seeking the Republican nomination for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman. Democrats see the race as one of their best chances nationally to flip a seat in the midterm elections, while Republicans remain optimistic about their chances of holding a seat in a state that has swung to the right under Trump's influence.
The primary has been heated from the start, with nearly all the Republicans in the race competing for Trump's endorsement — a prize that eventually went to Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy.” At the time of the endorsement, Vance was trailing in the polls, and the race is seen as one of the first big tests of Trump's enduring influence among Republican voters.
But at a rally in Nebraska on Sunday, Trump seemed to undercut his support for Vance by mixing up his name with that of another candidate in the race.
“We’ve endorsed Dr. (Mehmet) Oz. We’ve endorsed J.P., right — J.D. Mandel. And he’s doing great,” Trump told the crowd. “They’re all doing good. They’re all doing good. And let’s see what happens.”
Mandel is the last name of one of Vance’s most bitter rivals, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, another candidate who had courted Trump's support. For voters inclined to follow Trump's endorsement, the gaffe risked muddling in their minds which candidate has the former president's backing.
Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons, a GOP contender in Ohio, seized on Trump’s mistake as an opportunity to disparage Vance.
“Quite a ringing endorsement, eh?” he said in an email blast Sunday night, saying Vance is “clearly irrelevant” to Trump.
Gibbons’ final push included an online event featuring Paul, the senator from Kentucky, while Mandel campaigned with Texas' Cruz on Friday and Saturday, and with fellow military veterans Monday.
Meanwhile, Portman continued to campaign for Jane Timken, a former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, who has pointed to the strength of her grassroots network headed into Tuesday's vote.
Vance campaigned over the weekend with Hawley, Gaetz and Greene, a trio of strident Trump allies who are among the party's most hard-right lawmakers. They portrayed Vance as a Washington outsider who will take on the establishment and stand up for average working Ohioans.
Vance was slammed for his decision to appear with Gaetz, who is embroiled in a federal sex trafficking investigation, although he has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. Vance said that being accused of a crime these days “is very often more about corrupt law enforcement than it is about anything anybody’s actually done.”
Rival candidate Matt Dolan, a state senator and former assistant state attorney general, rebuked Vance for the statement, as did one of Dolan's top supporters, former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery.
“The fact that JD is more inclined to defend a man being investigated for sex trafficking than our brave police officers and sheriffs, clearly proves he is unfit to serve as Ohio’s next U.S. senator,” Montgomery, a four-time state officeholder, said in a statement.
Dolan is the only prominent GOP candidate in the race who didn't jockey for Trump’s endorsement.
In the state's Democratic Senate primary, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan was campaigning before union groups and teachers, while his progressive rival Morgan Harper, a former consumer protection attorney and community organizer, was knocking doors and visiting polling places. The winners of the Republican and Democratic contests will face off in November.
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Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press