The Ohio Senate race is turning into one of the most brutal contests of next year’s midterm elections — and former President Donald Trump is worried it could hurt him if he waged a 2024 comeback bid.
Trump last month called Club for Growth President David McIntosh to complain about a TV advertising campaign the conservative organization was running targeting Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, and asked McIntosh to take the ads down. The commercials attacked Vance by using footage of him from 2016, when he described himself as a “Never Trump guy” and called Trump an “idiot,” “noxious” and “offensive.” The message was designed to hurt Vance in a Republican primary centered on fealty toward the former president. Vance, like others in the race, has cast himself as a staunch Trump ally.
But according to three people briefed on the call, Trump told McIntosh the commercials could have the effect of driving down his popularity in Ohio, which he won by 8 percentage points in the 2020 election. Prior to the call, Trump had been stewing over the ads and had complained about them to people in his circle.
McIntosh, an informal Trump adviser who frequently talks with the former president about campaigns around the country, responded by saying he would look into the matter, according to one of the people familiar with the conversation. But the Club continued airing the $1 million TV buy — and on Wednesday, the organization escalated the offensive by plowing another $500,000 behind the effort.
Trump’s intervention in the race illustrates how he views the 2022 midterm election: as a tool to bolster and measure his own political standing ahead of a potential 2024 bid. The former president has been endorsing Republican candidates across the country and using their successes to trumpet his popularity within the party. And when he believes he hasn’t gotten enough credit he’s lashed out: After Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in last month’s Virginia gubernatorial race, the former president steamed that he wasn’t getting enough recognition.
A Trump spokesperson, Taylor Budowich, declined to comment on the conversation between Trump and McIntosh but said: “President Trump loves Ohio, and you don’t have to look any further than his historic 8-point victory in 2020 to know Ohio loves President Trump. No wonder that every candidate in Ohio has become a champion for America First. The strongest ‘Trump’ candidate will surely win.”
A Club for Growth spokesperson declined to comment.
After McIntosh’s conversation with Trump, the Club for Growth sent to the former president’s political team a polling memo contending that the ad blitz had no bearing on his standing. The memo outlined the results of surveys conducted in four media markets across the state and compared Trump’s numbers before and after the commercials aired. The project found that there was no significant change in Trump’s popularity in any of the four markets.
“The polls … show that the advertising has had no effect on President Trump’s image as his favorable and unfavorable ratings changed by no more than a single point in any market,” stated a separate Club-commissioned memo obtained by POLITICO, which also argued that the barrage had taken a toll on Vance.
Vance allies disputed the Club’s polling showing declining ratings for Vance. And in a statement saying the Club for Growth was “desperate to stop J.D.,” because he doesn’t share the group’s “globalist pro-China trade agenda,” Vance campaign manager Jordan Wiggins noted that the Club for Growth had worked against Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries.
Trump has remained in touch with McIntosh since last month’s call, and the anti-Vance commercials haven’t arisen again during their conversations, said a person familiar with the talks.
Still, the Club isn’t the only advertiser using Vance’s anti-Trump statements against him. This week, one of his rivals, investment banker Mike Gibbons, began running commercials targeting Vance with many of the same lines used in the Club’s spots.
But it isn’t the first time there have been tensions between the Club and the former president or people in his political orbit. This summer, Trump advisers blamed McIntosh for encouraging Trump to get behind a losing candidate in a nationally watched Texas special election.
The relationship between Trump and the anti-tax organization is long and complicated. During the 2016 election, the Club spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to prevent Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination. But in recent years, the group and its president, McIntosh, have emerged as staunch allies of the former president, targeting his Republican critics and lining up behind many of the candidates he’s endorsed in GOP primaries.
In Ohio, though, Trump has yet to endorse in the Ohio contest, while the Club has thrown its support to former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is seen as the frontrunner. The primary has developed as a Trump loyalty contest: This spring, the candidates sat down with Trump in an “Apprentice”-style boardroom meeting where they auditioned for his support.
Vance, who now says Trump “proved” him “wrong” as president following his initial criticism of Trump as a candidate, is among those trying to win him over ahead of Ohio’s May 3 primary. This spring, Vance traveled with his mentor and political benefactor, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, to Mar-a-Lago for a meeting with the former president.