What followed was a 15-minute backroom gossip session reminiscent of Trump’s reality show. Mandel said he was “crushing” Timken in the polls. Timken touted her support on the ground thanks to her time as state party chair. Gibbons mentioned how he had helped the Trump campaign financially. Moreno noted that his daughter had worked on Trump’s 2020 campaign.
The scene illustrated what has become a central dynamic in the nascent race of 2022. In virtually every Republican primary, candidates compete, audition and fight for the endorsement of the former president. Trump has received proposals from a crowd of candidates desperate for his endorsement, something leading Republicans say gives him all-encompassing power to make or break the outcome of the primaries.
And the former president, as happened so often during his presidency, seems to enjoy pitting people against each other.
A person familiar with what happened at Wednesday night’s meeting described it as “The Hunger Games,” an awkward showdown that none of them expected. To make things even more uncomfortable, this person said, was that the rival candidates were seated at a circular table, so each had to face off against the others.
Trump started the meeting by asking everyone to tell him how the race was going. Timken, who was the chairman of Trump’s chosen state party, was the first to speak. He spoke about the initial support he had received and how he had worked to re-elect him.
Two people familiar with the discussion said Trump at one point reminded Timken that he had initially defended Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) after he voted for Trump’s impeachment in January. The fundraiser that night was to benefit Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide who was running to impeach Gonzalez, and the former president spoke mockingly about the member of Congress throughout the night, several attendees said.
Timken, two people said, responded to Trump by saying she had “cleaned up” her position, an apparent reference to a later statement he released asking González to resign.
Another person briefed on the meeting rejected that account, saying Trump was only jokingly mocking Timken for his earlier comments about Gonzalez. The person noted that later in the evening, speaking before the fundraiser, the former president had congratulated Timken on her work as president.
Several people familiar with what happened during the meeting said that most of the tension seemed to be between Timken and Mandel, and that it seemed like they were trying to outdo each other. Timken and Mandel have already announced their candidacies and are considered the first pioneers; Gibbons and Moreno have yet to formally launch their campaigns.
Mandel used his speaking time to promote his recent endorsement of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization whose president, former Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), Is close to the former president. He also noted that a recent Growth Club poll showed him leading the field and mentioned that his campaign had conducted a private poll with similar results.
According to one account, Mandel added that he was “crushing” Timken in the first election.
Timken laughed at the barrage, insisting that her internal survey showed her in a solid starting position.
The former president indicated that he was aware of polls that showed Mandel ahead. But at one point, he asked if the former state treasurer was fully committed to the contest, an apparent reference to Mandel’s decision to withdraw from the 2018 Senate race, which at the time he attributed to his problems with the health of his wife.
Mandel replied: “Mr. President, I only know of two ways of doing things: or not at all, or balls against the wall. I hired a group of assassins on my team. I am a murderer and we are going to win the primary and then the general.
Mandel was tough during the conversation, saying that he had endorsed Trump before any of his opponents during the 2016 presidential race and mentioned that he had been active in raising funds for his re-election bid.
Gibbons spoke about how he had donated extensively to Trump, even though the former president had endorsed Gibbons’ opponent in the 2018 Senate primaries, the then Representative. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio). According to the accounts of two people, Trump responded by saying that Renacci, whom González replaced in the House, was not a winner, a likely reference to Renacci’s defeat in the 2018 general election to Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.
Moreno largely stayed out of the fray, though at one point he said each of the four candidates should win Trump’s backing.
Over the course of the night, Trump appeared to be obsessed with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, whom the former president attacked last fall after DeWine called Joe Biden “president-elect” during a national television appearance.
Trump has yet to endorse in the race, and during the meeting he gave no indication that he was endorsing one candidate over another. All four are running to replace retired Republican Senator Rob Portman. The Republican field likely also includes author JD Vance, who was not present Wednesday night.
During the meeting, Trump asked about the governor and if he could be defeated in a primary. While Mandel said the governor was politically vulnerable, Timken argued that he would be hard to beat.
Later that night at the fundraiser, the former president polled attendees about what they thought of their governor. The question initially generated some confusion, given that the event was taking place in Florida, whose Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, has allied with Trump. However, it soon became clear that he was referring to DeWine.
DeWine has yet to draw a Republican challenger, although Renacci has been mentioned as a possible candidate.