All eyes on Trump as Timken gains momentum in Ohio

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Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's (R) endorsement of Republican Senate candidate Jane Timken could alter the dynamics of the state's crowded GOP primary and give Timken a needed boost.

Portman, who is retiring next year, on Wednesday offered Timken the race's most high-profile endorsement to date. Timken will likely get access to the senator's vast donor network and campaign apparatus in the state, where Portman is popular. Timken's campaign said it raised $250,000 in the 24 hours after Portman endorsed her.

"This is the most significant thing that has happened in the Senate race. Period. End of discussion," said one Republican operative involved in Ohio politics.

Some strategists are also asking if Portman's endorsement could foreshadow a potential endorsement from former President Trump.

"That is the hottest rumor in Ohio right now," state Sen. Michael Rulli (R), who has endorsed Timken, said. "If that happens, in my humble opinion, Jane would lock it up."

While Trump has yet to give any indicator of whom he will endorse in the primary, many of the candidates have heavily vied for the former president's nod in the state he carried in 2016 and 2020.

"The 800-pound gorilla in this thing is going to be the Trump endorsement," said one Ohio-based GOP strategist. "That will change dramatically whatever this race is currently. There are some folks that absolutely need that endorsement, there are other folks that may not think they need it."

Various figures from Trump World have fanned out across the state's Senate campaigns. Kellyanne Conway, a longtime adviser to Trump, announced this week that she was endorsing Timken and joining her campaign as a senior strategist. In her endorsement, Conway referred to Timken as a "true MAGA champion," using the acronym for "make America great again," one of Trump's main political slogans.

And last week, Trump's 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien and deputy campaign manager Justin Clark joined businessman Mike Gibbons's campaign.

Author J.D. Vance's campaign has hired two aides to the former president, including longtime GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. Meanwhile, former Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel is being backed by the conservative group Club for Growth, which is led by Trump ally David McIntosh.

Mandel has mostly led in internal and public polls that have been released in the race, while Timken has typically stayed in the middle tier. A poll from the Trafalgar Group, a Republican firm, released this week showed Mandel leading the field with 21 percent support. Gibbons took 16 percent, and author Vance took 14 percent. Timken and state Sen. Matt Dolan (R) were tied at about 10 percent, according to the poll. And another 25 percent said they were still undecided.

Timken's supporters are hopeful Portman's endorsement will help sway those undecided voters.

Portman's backing of Timken is especially significant given his popularity across the Buckeye State. Portman, a moderate who has served in the Senate since 2011, won his reelection bid against former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in 2016 by 20 points.

"What people forget is how popular the Portman brand is in Ohio with Republicans," the GOP operative said, noting Portman's favorability rating has consistently been in the 60 percent range among Ohio Republicans.

"Rob is not the flashiest person," the operative. "He has thirty years of getting shit done."

The retiring senator has walked a fine line in dealing with the former president. Portman served as Trump's Ohio co-chair in 2020 and said he supported Trump's right to investigate the election results. However, Portman ultimately decided not to formally object to the 2020 presidential election results.

Portman was the lead GOP negotiator on President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure legislation and was one of the few members of his party to attend the bill's signing ceremony at the White House last year. Trump and many of his supporters have been staunchly opposed to the bipartisan legislation.

But Portman has a strong presence in the Ohio Republican Party, which has been staunchly supportive of Trump.

"President Trump respects strength, winning, and success," the operative said.

Dolan is the only candidate in the race who has not aggressively vied for Trump's endorsement. He's also the only candidate in the race who said he would vote for the infrastructure bill, while the other primary candidates, including Timken, publicly voiced their opposition to the legislation. And unlike Portman, Timken has said she would not have voted to certify the 2020 election results, arguing that Republicans did not get the chance to investigate voting fraud allegations.

Despite those differences, Timken still received Portman's stamp of approval.

Dolan, who represents the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls in the state Senate, is seen as being the most like Portman. However, there are key differences.

"Rob Portman has not been particularly antagonistic to President Trump the way people like Matt Dolan and others have been," said veteran Ohio Republican strategist Mark Weaver. "I don't imagine he's particularly angry at Rob Portman."

Strategists say that Portman's endorsement of Timken probably has the most negative impact on Dolan, who reacted to news of the endorsement this week.

"He made clear that his support for Jane Timken was predicated on personal friendship," Dolan said, referring to a conversation with the senator. "I respect Rob's service, but each day more and more Ohio Republicans recognize the fact I am the only candidate with a record of conservative leadership that gets results for Ohio."

Others have questioned the strength of Trump's endorsement. In Georgia, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has outraised former Sen. David Perdue (R), who has been backed by Trump in that primary. Other Trump-endorsed candidates, including Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) in Alabama and Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska, have also struggled.

Some examples go even further back to 2019 when Trump endorsed former Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in her Senate bid, but she lost to now-Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in 2020.

But Timken has shown no signs of letting up on tying herself to the former president.

On Friday, her campaign released a 30-second ad accusing her male GOP rivals of overcompensating for their "inadequacies," while touting her support for Trump.

"I'm Trump tough and I put America first," Timken says in the spot.