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Trump looks to thwart Tim Ryan’s courtship of Republican voters in Ohio

(Provided Photo/Tom E. Puskar/AP)

 (CNN) — Donald Trump looked to stall Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan’s attempt to win over his supporters with a Saturday rally in Ohio, telling the audience that the Democrat is no friend of the Trump movement even if he is “acting as though he is my friend on policy.”

Trump’s appearance in support of Republican Senate candidate JD Vance is the latest stop on his tour to aid the candidates he helped win contentious Republican primaries. Trump has used his endorsement to help Senate candidates such as Vance, Blake Masters in Arizona and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania emerge from crowded Republican fields. But these nominees have since struggled to pivot to the general election, beset by depleted campaign coffers and poor post-primary fundraising, forcing the former President to come to their aid once again.

As influential as Trump has been in Republican primaries, his influence in a general election remains uncertain. But Republicans working to take back the Senate now find themselves in a scenario under which the candidates Trump helped nominate are now central to any hope of controlling the chamber in 2023.

To do just that, Trump has hit the road. The former president headlined a rally two weeks ago in Pennsylvania, where Oz spoke and the former President lauded the celebrity doctor, albeit briefly. Trump is scheduled to lead an event in North Carolina on Friday with US Rep. Ted Budd, the state’s Senate nominee, who has the former President’s endorsement, and later in Michigan with a series of candidates he has backed.

In Ohio, Ryan is mounting a stronger than expected challenge to Vance by distancing himself from some Democratic policies and embracing aspects of Trump’s tenue. Ryan has run ads criticizing his own partysuggested President Joe Biden shouldn’t run for reelection and — in acknowledgment of Ohio’s recent rightward shift — stressed the need for Democrats to win over Trump voters.

“I agreed with Trump on trade,” Ryan said in a television ad over the summer. “I voted against outsourcing every single time.”

Trump has clearly taken note of Ryan’s strategy — his rally on Saturday was in Youngstown, the heart of Ryan’s congressional district.

“He looked at my poll numbers. I think he is running, JD, on an I love Donald Trump policy,” Trump said of Ryan, adding, “He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him. He has been terrible.”

By rallying in Youngstown, Trump is stepping into the area that shaped Ryan. Raised in nearby Niles, Ohio, Ryan has represented the community for all his political career, making it and surrounding Mahoning County synonymous with his brand of union-backing Democratic politics. But Mahoning has tilted toward Republicans after being a Democratic stronghold for years: Trump in 2020 was the first Republican presidential nominee to win the county since Richard Nixon in 1972.

“I won his area by a lot,” Trump said, adding, “We won Ohio twice. … We won it in two landslides and now we have to give JD a landslide.”

One way Ohio Democrats have looked to win over Trump voters is by casting Vance as a phony, repeatedly noting that as recently as 2016 the now Trump-endorsed Senate candidate criticized the former president.

“Yeah, he said some bad things about me,” Trump said with a smile, acknowledging Vance’s past criticism. “But that was before he knew me. And then he fell in love.”

Trump’s remarks were littered with his trademark grievance politics. The former president said, “for six straight years I have been harassed, investigated, defamed, slandered, and persecuted” like no president in history, adding that people are “not just coming after me, they are coming after you through me.”

His complaints were not just about Democrats, though. While complaining about inflation, Trump said, “Mitch McConnell better get on the ball and stop it in the Senate. He is like a Democrat.”

And Trump also put the onus on Vance to stand up to the Senate Republican leader and “get him out of there.”

“Mitch McConnell is a disgrace and I hope you are going to do something about it, JD,” Trump said, putting Vance in an awkward position given that Senate Leadership Fund, a group with close ties to McConnell, was forced to reserve $28 million in television ad time in Ohio, an outlay no Republican would have expected for the race earlier in the cycle.

By the end of June, Ryan had raised $21.8 million in the 2022 cycle, compared with only $3.5 million for Vance. The Democrat entered the second half of the year with a 5-to-1 cash advantage over his GOP opponent.

And in Vance’s case, the money issues extend beyond his own fundraising.

To get through the primary, Vance needed the outside support of billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel, who poured millions into a pro-Vance super PAC. The money Thiel spent to boost Vance even warmed Trump to backing the Republican candidate.

But once Vance emerged from the primary, Thiel stopped spending on his pro-Vance effort, causing significant rifts between the PayPal co-founder and Republicans such as McConnell, who has lobbied Thiel to spend more on Senate campaigns.

Much of Trump’s speech focused on his personal politics more than Vance or others. Trump continued to tease a 2024 run — something he has been doing for months.

“I ran twice, I won twice,” Trump said, before adding that he “may have to do it again.”

The crowd erupted as Trump continued to lie about the 2020 election, a sign of how election denial is still a key motivator for the former president’s followers.

“Stay tuned, everybody. Stay tuned,” he added.

Trump was scheduled to begin speaking at 7 p.m. ET, the same time as the Ohio State Buckeyes kicked off against the Toledo Rockets less than 200 miles away in Columbus. Vance, who graduated from Ohio State, said he thought the rally would be over at 8:30 p.m. ET so that people could leave and watch the second half. Trump began speaking at 7:44 p.m. ET and didn’t end until 9:25 p.m. ET — when the Ohio State game was well into the third quarter with Ohio State leading 49-21.

Trump acknowledged the Ohio State football game, saying, “you have a football game going on and it didn’t effect this crowd.”

Democrats responded to the Trump rally by primarily dismissing it as less important than the Ohio State game.

“I was too busy watching football, but I’m sure whatever San Francisco phony JD Vance and his out-of-state allies tried to talk about in a half-empty stadium would’ve rang hollow with all the Ohioans who were also busy tuning into the Ohio State-Toledo game,” said Jordan Fuja, a Ryan spokeswoman who was at the Ohio State game on Saturday night.

The scene around the event was like most other Trump rallies, where some of the former President’s most fervent acolytes milled about as his devout supporters stood in line for hours to get in. Those acolytes included Mike Lindell, who said Tuesday that the FBI served him with a grand jury subpoena for the contents of his phone as part of an investigation into a Colorado election security breach.

Trump did not mention Lindell from the stage.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Republican outside group that has invested in TV ad reservations to help Vance.