COLUMBUS, Ohio — J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author who was a searing Donald Trump critic before he converted into one of his most loyal allies, has defeated Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio’s Senate race, NBC News projects.
Vance will succeed fellow Republican Rob Portman, who did not seek re-election. Unlike Portman, Vance has advanced unsubstantiated theories that a second term was stolen from Trump at the ballot box in 2020.
"I am overwhelmed with gratitude," Vance told a cheering crowd of supporters crammed inside a hotel ballroom here.
"Whether you voted for me or not," he added later in his speech, "the thing that I promise to do is go to the United States Senate and fight every single day for the people of Ohio."
The race became an unexpected and expensive battleground in the fight for partisan control of the Senate. Portman’s previous success and Trump’s two comfortable Ohio victories made Ryan, 49, a heavy underdog. But Ryan tailored his campaign to independents and moderate Republicans, presenting himself as a champion of the working class.
Ryan conceded to Vance in a phone call shortly after the race was called. In his remarks to supporters in Youngstown, Ryan called the concession call a "privilege ... because the way this country operates is that when you lose an election, you concede."
In his victory speech, Vance described the phone call with Ryan as "gracious."
"We obviously disagree on a lot of issues," Vance said of Ryan. "But the guy obviously loves the state of Ohio."
Vance, 38, had to overcome poor fundraising, rookie mistakes that threatened to doom his campaign over the summer and suspicions within his own party about his past opposition to Trump. Polls from the summer and into early fall showed Ryan tied with Vance, although surveys in the closing weeks suggested Vance was pulling ahead.
National GOP groups, including those aligned with Trump and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, helped Vance offset his deficiencies, pumping tens of millions of dollars into ads that attacked Ryan’s record in Congress. Despite his efforts to present himself as a centrist, Ryan had a voting record that yoked him closely to President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
And although Ryan at one time challenged Pelosi’s leadership, Republicans characterized him as a Pelosi puppet, echoing rhetoric in other races across the country in an election season punctuated by a violent attack on Pelosi’s husband in the couple’s San Francisco home on Oct. 28.
Ryan, who is in his 10th term representing a Youngstown-area district, briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Unlike Vance, he had little help from outside groups as he sought the Senate seat.
Many national Democratic groups looked at their losses in Ohio over the last decade and deemed the state unworthy of their investment this year. The groups instead prioritized incumbents in states like Arizona, Georgia and Nevada and a pickup opportunity in Pennsylvania. The national party's one reach was North Carolina, which hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 2008. Ohio has re-elected Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown twice since then.
Vance, a venture capitalist, reinvented himself as a Trump cheerleader in recent years while cultivating relationships with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and others on the far right. But early on in a GOP primary that featured several other candidates aggressively courting Trump's endorsement, Vance trailed known quantities like former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state GOP chair Jane Timken. He also struggled to surpass self-funding candidates like investment banker Mike Gibbons and state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians.
But a series of debates — bad for fleeting front-runners Mandel and Gibbons, strong for the newcomer Vance — helped sell Trump on an endorsement. And Trump’s support helped Vance emerge from the crowded field with a plurality.
Ryan had a much easier primary and quickly marshaled his resources around a summer ad blitz that established him as a moderate who could strike populist notes with his tough talk about China. (An early ad that suggested China was to blame for economic malaise in the U.S. drew a rebuke from an Asian American group.) Vance, by contrast, had little money to counter Ryan’s ads and drew complaints from Ohio GOP leaders that he was coasting toward the general election. Vance’s team always asserted it would be back on the air once the campaign war chest was replenished and outside spending groups unleashed their post-Labor Day attacks.
But Vance himself stewed over Ryan’s ads.
“I actually spoke to a donor yesterday who told me that he thought Tim Ryan was running in the Republican primary,” Vance said in July. “And he was confused because he thought the Republicans’ primary was over.”
The contest, in its closing weeks, centered on authenticity and on who could best relate to middle-of-the-road Republicans turned off by Trump’s MAGA movement. Vance, who had previously campaigned alongside polarizing right-wing figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, started sharing events with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican known for his crossover appeal who also was up for re-election Tuesday.
Ryan racked up endorsements from several prominent Republicans, including Bernie Kosar, the Youngstown native and revered former Cleveland Browns quarterback known for his GOP fundraising and activism. He campaigned with national labor leaders and with Brown, the only Democrat in recent Ohio history who's had sustained electoral success. He campaigned with national labor leaders and with Brown, the only Democrat in recent Ohio history who’s had sustained electoral success.
“Sherrod, they’re gonna be like, ‘What happened in Ohio with these two guys?’” Ryan, imagining a scenario where the state has two Democratic senators for the first time since in more than a quarter century, said Sunday night during a labor rally with Brown in Cleveland. “It’s gonna be fun.”
Ryan also seized a Trump comment from a Youngstown rally in September, where the former president joked that Vance was “kissing my a--.” Ohioans, Ryan countered, deserved an “a-- kicker.”
Trump returned to Ohio on election eve to rally with Vance outside Dayton and made an effort to correct his past remark.
"J.D. will never be owned by the establishment. He won't be owned by me, either, unfortunately," Trump told the audience. "I'm doing the right thing for the country. He's a very independent guy. And he'll be an independent senator who is loyal only to the people of Ohio."