At a kickoff rally Thursday night in his hometown of Middletown, near Cincinnati, Vance delivered a populist message, with large corporations, big tech firms and “public health leadership” in the crosshairs. He also promised to fight for the grandmothers who believe in a secure border and for the “middle-class worker.”

“I want to be not just a fighter, but a fighter who’s fighting for you,” Vance said from behind a lectern where, moments before his announcement, a campaign sign had fallen down.

“There has never been a Republican primary for statewide office in Ohio this wide open and this chaotic,” said one Republican strategist familiar with Ohio. “Each one of these candidates has their own claim to the Republican base.”

The knives were already out for Vance before the 36-year-old venture capitalist joined the race. Earlier this week, Ohio Republicans received anonymous text messages blasting Vance as a “Never Trumper.” The texts are similar to a flurry of messages sent to voters in April,denouncing Vance shortly after he announced he was exploring a Senate run.

Most Ohio Republicans doubt Trump will endorse until closer to the May 3 primary next year, but the fight over his mantle is on. Mandel, for instance, has taken on the role of pro-Trump culture warrior, releasing a video last month of himself burning a protective mask to protest Covid-19 restrictions. The more establishment-aligned Timken can point to Trump’s support for her as Ohio GOP chair in January 2017. And Vance has taken up Trump’s criticisms of “Big Tech” — aligning him with the Trump donor and Silicon Valley gadfly Peter Thiel, who earlier this year pledged $10 million to a pro-Vance super PAC.

Trump’s centrality in the GOP primary reflects how the former president remains a political force in the Buckeye State. Trump won the state twice, earning more than 3 million votes in 2020 and improving his share of the vote from four years earlier by 2 percentage points.

Once considered a perennial swing state, Ohio has trended toward the GOP for the past decade. In that time, Republicans have held every state executive office and the majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Since 2010, only two Democrats have been able to win statewide in Ohio: Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection bid and Sen. Sherrod Brown, who won reelection in 2012 and again in 2018.

Trump’s ascendance has accelerated the GOP’s takeover, allowing the party to corner the White working-class vote that Democrats have struggled to keep in the fold. Amid their own primary battle, Republicans are trying to define the Democrats’ leading candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan, as someone who is captured by his party’s left wing and out of touch with Ohioans.

“As Tim Ryan seeks a promotion, he is trending more and more leftward to appease his liberal bosses — Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, AOC and Bernie Sanders,” said Lizzie Litzow of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “He is in lockstep with these radicals on issues like open borders that have led to the outrageous crisis at our Southern Border and abolishing the filibuster — a blatant power grab.”

Hoping for a reversal in their fortunes, Democrats in Ohio and nationally are counting on a chaotic and messy Republican primary to give their nominee a chance.

“Their chaos is our opportunity,” said Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “These Republican candidates are so desperately running their campaigns for an audience of one, for Trump.”

Ryan declined to be interviewed for this story.

Vying for Trump’s base

This competition came to a head in Wellington, Ohio, on Saturday, where each of the top Republican candidates treated Trump’s rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds as a proving ground.

Leading into the rally, Timken ran a radio ad touting her Trump credentials. On the day of, she had a plane flying over the rallygoers touting her campaign and had campaign volunteers around the event to meet voters. Gibbons hosted a pro-Trump tailgate before the rally and had volunteers and the event. Both Mandel and Moreno took a more casual approach to the event — they attended but mostly just mingled with people.

Trump — in Ohio to kick off his revenge tour against Republicans who haven’t been loyal to him — clearly enjoyed the competition vying for his base’s support.

Standing on stage deep into his rally, the former President began to play up the divisions.

“Hey, do you want to take a poll,” Trump exclaimed about the Senate race, throwing the crowd of supporters into the contentious affair.

When Trump mentioned Timken, the former state party chair earned a smattering of cheers, groans and boos. Mandel, who has tailored his campaign narrowly to Trump’s base, earned more hearty applause, while the response to Gibbons — more of an unknown in the race — was more muted. The former President, seemingly sensing the divisions, said, “I think we’ll get out of this poll stuff,” before mentioning Moreno.

The tension at the Trump rally was just the latest — and possibly most public — chapter of an already frenzied race, one that has seen the candidates already fighting.

The frontrunners

Mandel, the 43-year-old Marine veteran, is considered the current frontrunner even by those supporting his rivals. Thanks to his two terms as state treasurer, he has high name identification and connections with conservative groups and leaders in Ohio.

Mandel also brings a considerable amount of campaign dollars — more than $4 million — left unspent from his short-lived 2018 run for Senate, when he dropped out months before the primary.

“If the election were today, Josh would win,” said one adviser to another GOP candidate.

But Mandel is also facing headwinds in the early months of his current campaign. The Columbus Dispatch reported in May that three of Mandel’s fundraisers had left the campaign, followed by a report this week that two of those staff members departed because of a “toxic work environment” created by Mandel’s girlfriend and finance director, Rachel Wilson.

Mandel declined to comment to CNN about those reports.

Mandel’s most direct competition appears to be Timken, who comes to the race without the experience in elected office but with a formidable organization — including committee chairs in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Timken also has access to financial and political resources through her husband, Tim Timken, a former steel executive who is a lobbyist in Columbus.

Timken has faulted other candidates “who have based President Trump, refused to campaign for him or quit the tough fights” — something she has done regularly on campaign literature that calls out her opponents by name. Mandel has regularly attacked Timken, casting her as someone not entirely loyal to Trump and tying her to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who has drawn the ire of Trump loyalists.

Much of Mandel’s focus on Timken has centered around Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the Republican congressman who voted in favor of impeaching Trump earlier this year. The Ohio Republican Party later censured Gonzalez and called for him to resign.

Timken carefully defended Gonzalez after his vote, touting his record as a legislator and opening up a line of attack for Mandel.

“Question: Why did Jane Timken refuse to censure Gonzalez when she was Chairman? She clearly had time to do so,” Mandel tweeted in May. “So what’s the real reason?”

A ‘different kind of candidate’

Vance enters the Senate race as something of a wild card. Known primarily for his best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the Yale Law School graduate and venture capitalist has emerged as an authoritative voice on the White-working class that makes up the base of Trump’s support in the GOP.

But Vance’s political fate could come down to how he talks about his transformation on Trump, who he publicly opposed in 2016 before reversing his position in 2020.

During the 2016 campaign, Vance wrote in USA Today, “Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd.” The same year, as it became clear Trump would become the GOP presidential nominee, Vance wrote in The Atlantic that “Trump is cultural heroin,” who “makes some feel better for a bit.”

“He cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it,” added Vance.

As the anonymous text message demonstrates, Vance is already facing attacks for his past opposition to Trump. Some of that will come from the national conservative movement, which has begun to coalesce around Mandel. The Club for Growth’s political action committee, which endorsed Mandel in March, released a statement Wednesday night going after Vance.

“He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he’s spent the bulk of it tearing down President Trump and mocking Trump voters,” said the Club’s president, David McIntosh.

Nevertheless, Vance’s allies say he is the most authentic candidate in the field because he can express so well why Trump became president. (They also point out that some of his opponents, including Mandel, first supported other Republicans in the 2016 Ohio presidential primary.)

Earlier this year, Vance met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. He also attended his rally last week in Ohio. And his connection with Thiel may further help soften any bad feelings Trump could have for Vance.

A spokesman for the Thiel-backed super PAC, Protect Ohio Values, told CNN that Vance “believes deeply in President Trump’s America First agenda and is laser focused on fighting for policies that will benefit Ohio’s mighty Middle Class.”

“Ohioans want elected leaders with the spine to stand up to Washington’s corrupt political class and we’re confident that JD Vance is the only candidate in this race who fits that bill,” added the spokesman.

The Republican strategist familiar with Ohio called Vance a “different kind of candidate” with an idiosyncratic style and issue-set who could break out if primary voters find themselves underwhelmed by Mandel and Timken.

That jibes with the overwhelming sense from Ohio Republicans that, barring an intervention by Trump, anything could happen.

“This could be the wildest primary of the cycle,” said the GOP strategist.

This story has been updated with Vance’s remarks Thursday evening.

CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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