YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Former President Donald Trump on Saturday returned to one of his favorite stomping grounds here to rally his loyal supporters behind J.D. Vance’s bid for the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Trump warned the voters that helped him carry Ohio in back-to-back presidential races that Mr. Vance‘s rival Rep. Tim Ryan is trying to trick them into thinking he is a MAGA-friendly Democrat when it reality he is wrong on everything from taxes to immigration and abortion.
“Tim Ryan is a militant left-winger who is lying to your faces, acting as though he is my friend on policy, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected and betray everything you believe in,” Mr. Trump said.
He said, “I never liked that guy very much.”
Mr. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” is locked in a more competitive than expected race against Mr. Ryan to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, who has kept the seat in Republican hands since 2011.
Mr. Vance ran in a brutal primary. Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, ran unopposed. Over that time he opened up a massive fundraising advantage, allowing him to saturate the airwaves with ads defining himself as a centrist and common man.
Political forecasts still give Republicans the edge in the race, but the tight-knit nature of the race has reignited a debate over whether the success Mr. Trump has powering his preferred picks through key primary races could knee-cap the GOP‘s chances of flipping the Senate.
Less than two months out from the election, Mr. Trump said the choice is “simple.”
“If you want to continue this national catastrophe, vote for the radical left Democrats,” Mr. Trump said. “If you want to stop the destruction of America and really reinvigorate that good old-fashioned American dream you must vote Republican.”
Mr. Vance also said Mr. Ryan is a phony.
He said the way the ten-term Democrat presents himself to voters on the campaign trail clashes with his liberal voting record and positions he staked out during his short-lived 2020 presidential campaign.
“I was led to believe… Tim Ryan is a reasonable moderate. Is that not true?” Mr. Vance said. “Of course it is not true.”
He said, “We need to kick ‘DC Tim’ to the curb, make him go back home and get a real job.”
The “Save America” rally coincided with the Ohio State University football game against the University of Toledo. The dueling events opened the door for critics to question whether Mr. Trump and Mr. Vance understand what makes Ohioians tick.
Mr. Ryan seized on the opportunity before the rally, releasing a football themed television ad in which a pair of commentators analyze scouting reports comparing “Silicon Valley J.D.” and “Politician J.D.”
“Silicon Valley J.D. is very comfortable on the West Coast and told reporters he feels ‘out of place’ in Ohio,” one of the commentators says. “Drafted out of Yale Law School, says he loves those days trips to wine country, and called Trump ‘Hitler.’”
“Now he suddenly loves Trump and grew a beard,” the other says. “That’s not fooling this crowd.”
Political analysts credit Mr. Ryan with running a strong campaign, but his path to victory is still narrow thanks to the state’s tilt to the right.
Mr. Trump carried Ohio by 8 percentage points over President Biden, buoyed by strong support in some of the states’ former Democratic bastions. Mr. Trump is the first Republican presidential candidate since 1972 to win Mahoning County, home to this blue-collar, union-heavy, city of Youngstown.
Mr. Trump’s popularity was on display here as throngs of supporters turned out in pro-Trump hats and t-shirts that, among other things, read, “Fake Media is the Virus” and “Built Trump Tough.”
The event served as a showcase for Trump-backed candidates, including Max Miller, the Republican nominee in 7th Congressional District, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, the Republican nominee in the 13th Congressional District, and J.R. Majewski, the Republican nominee in the 9th Congressional District.
Rep. Jim Jordan, a favorite of grassroots activists, said the race for the Senate is “the most important” contest in Ohio, and called on voters to “work your tail off” to make sure Mr. Vance’s wins.
“This is a Republican seat,” Mr. Jordan said. “We have to make sure a conservative like J.D. Vance is our United States Senator.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial Georgia firebrand who endorsed Mr. Vance in the GOP primary race, framed the 2022 midterms as “freedom versus tyranny.”
“You have to flood the polls,” Ms. Greene said. “Don’t let the Democrats destroy the greatest country on earth.”
Mr. Ryan had raised nearly $22 million and spent $18 million through the end of June, while Mr. Vance had raised $3.6 million and spent nearly $3 million over that time.
The Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has raised concerns about candidate quality, last month bought $28 million worth of airtime to run ads on behalf of Mr. Vance.
Mr. Vance emerged from a competitive GOP primary in which most of the candidates vigorously fought for Mr. Trump’s support. Mr. Trump‘s endorsement was credited with pushing Mr. Vance over the finish line.
The endorsement surprised some Trump supporters who had a tough time stomaching the idea of getting behind a candidate such as Mr. Vance who had been highly critical of Mr. Trump during his rise in the 2016 presidential race.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Vance, however, have buried the hatchet.
“Yeah he said some bad things about me, but that was before he knew me and then he fell in love,” Mr. Trump said.