Shortly after Donald J. Trump was elected president, the Growth Club, the conservative anti-tax group that opposed his 2016 campaign, reemerged as a staunch supporter, with group president David McIntosh often advising Mr. Trump. Trump at important races around the country.
But this spring, as Mr. Trump faces critical strength tests for his supporters, an ugly primary run in the Ohio Senate is threatening what was a significant alliance with one of the most powerful groups in the country.
The controversy erupted a few days ago when, in support of Josh Mandel, the former Treasurer of Ohio, in the Republican Senate race, the Growth Club ran a TV ad for the Trump-backed candidate, author of The Village Elegy. JD Vance, repeatedly condemning Mr. Trump in 2016.
Mr. Trump’s response was rude: he asked the aide to send Mr. McIntosh a short text message, chastising him in the most vulgar terms. The group, one of the few that actually spends heavily on major races, responded that it would increase its advertising spending.
This escalation drew an angry response from Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the former president, who spent months urging his father to support Mr. Vance and invested his energy and influence on behalf of Mr. Vance.
The standoff over the Ohio primary raises some of the critical open questions within the Republican Party. Mr. Trump has wielded enormous influence, even though he has become less visible since leaving office, but other centers of power and GOP-affiliated groups that he used to have a stranglehold on are showing more self-assertion. And his ability to influence the mindset of Republican voters on behalf of other candidates is about to be tested in the polls.
So far, even after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots by Trump supporters who sought to keep him in power, many Republican candidates are going out of their way to win Mr. Trump’s support. This is especially true of Ohio, where Senate primaries were dominated by candidates such as Mr. Mandel and Mr. Vance, who emulated Mr. Trump’s reactionary policies.
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The Ohio contest also divided Trump’s own circle, as rival candidates hired various formal and informal advisers to the former president in hopes of swaying his eventual support.
Like Mr. Vance, Mr. McIntosh and the Growth Club opposed Mr. Trump in 2016, but then the group changed its position and became closely associated with him.
By the time Mr. Trump left office, Mr. McIntosh was frequently on the phone with him and visiting him at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club in Florida, according to Mr. McIntosh’s aide. His frequent attempts to influence Mr. Trump’s views on politics have gone so far as to irritate others in Mr. Trump’s circle, which is constantly changing and populated by people seeking influence.
In a brief interview after receiving a text message from Mr. Trump’s aide last week, Mr. McIntosh minimized the controversy over Ohio by noting that the former president and the Growth Club backed Rep. Ted Budd, a North Carolina Republican running for president. . The Senate, a race that the group spent a lot of money on.
“I see it as one race where we’re not aligned, we’re on opposite sides, which doesn’t happen often,” Mr. McIntosh said of the collision over Ohio.
However, the Growth Club also stayed with Rep. Mo Brooks in the Alabama Senate primary after Mr. Trump withdrew his support.
The controversy over the group’s attack on Mr. Vance hurt both Mr. Trump and his eldest son.
The former president has long taken particular pleasure in pacifying the Republicans, who, having criticized him, are forced to recognize his leadership in the party and bow and bow for his approval. That was the case with Mr. McIntosh, and also with Mr. Vance, who courted the former president with the help of Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and billionaire Peter Thiel, as well as Donald Trump Jr.
All of which explains why the Growth Club ad, in which Mr. Vance expresses contempt for Mr. Trump in 2016, angered not only the former president, but also his son.
The younger Mr. Trump, who is trying to flex his own political muscles in the Republican Party, took the quarrel between his father and Mr. McIntosh as an excuse to attack the group, as well as an attempt to topple Mr. Mandel.
When he visited Ohio this week on Mr. Vance’s behalf, the younger Mr. Trump lashed out at Mr. Mandel by name for his support of a no-fly zone in Ukraine and also criticized the Growth Club, saying: “They spent $10 million in 2016 to fight Donald Trump” and suggesting that the group is “soft on China”.
The younger Trump also said he could oppose candidates newly endorsed by the Growth Club unless he stops advertising Mr. Vance and removes Mr. McIntosh from the group’s board, according to the adviser, who spoke anonymously.
Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former top aide to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that while Trump’s approach to his endorsements in recent months has been rather haphazard, Vance’s support differs due to the composition of the primaries. “This is the first time that Trump’s political power is being tested on equal terms among widely accepted candidates,” Mr. Donovan said.
In both Ohio and North Carolina, according to Mr. Donovan, “Trump’s nod could elevate his mid-list selection to victory over established favorites with long résumés across the state. That would be an objectively impressive display of strength.”
Trump’s support has boosted his credibility in the primaries, according to a Fox News poll released Tuesday night. Mr. Vance received 23 percent of the primary vote, up 12 percentage points from the previous poll, ahead of Mr. Mandel, who received 18 percent. According to the poll, about 25 percent of voters are undecided.
Trump was told he could have the most impact if he approved it in mid-April as early voting was due to begin in the state.
There is always a chance that the Growth Club will succeed in wrestling in Ohio. Mr Mackintosh said he believed Mr Mandel was the most conservative and pro-Trump candidate in the area.
Still, Republican strategists said Vance’s late surge, even if he doesn’t win, would give Trump new bragging rights.
David Kochel, a Republican strategist who has advised former presidential candidates, said Mr Trump appears to have “breathed life into a campaign that most people thought was dead,” adding, “Even if Vance loses, Trump will be able to claim that he turned his campaign around.”