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'Hillbilly Elegy' author J.D. Vance launches GOP Senate bid in Ohio

Once a Trump critic, Vance has emerged as a prominent voice in the culture wars stoked by the former president and his allies.
J.D. Vance, author of \"Hillbilly Elegy,\" poses near the Capitol in 2017.
J.D. Vance, author of "Hillbilly Elegy," near the Capitol in 2017.Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post via Getty Images

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist known for “Hillbilly Elegy,” his best-selling memoir about growing up in Appalachia and the industrial Midwest, has entered Ohio's crowded Republican Senate primary.

"We need a new politics for a new generation," Vance, 36, said as he kicked off his campaign Thursday evening from a steel tubing factory here in his hometown. "The old way of doing things ain’t working."

Vance’s launch could be the most disruptive development yet in a GOP primary already shaped by the candidates’ zeal to win over former President Donald Trump and his supporters. The seat is up for grabs in 2020 because Republican Sen. Rob Portman is not seeking another term.

Though he's never run for office and is not particularly well known in Ohio, Vance has a national profile thanks to his book and the Academy Award-nominated film adapted from it, affording him unique access to free media coverage, elite donors and right-wing activists. Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor who backed Trump in 2016, donated $10 million to a super PAC formed this year to promote Vance as a Senate candidate.

That’s a sizable amount of money this early for an Ohio race, and it's a sum that can help Vance’s allies quickly introduce him to primary voters. And the money's source — a Big Tech entrepreneur — presents a degree of irony for someone who, through his provocative Twitter presence, has railed against Big Tech as being in league with establishment Republicans.

At Vance's Thursday event, guests held freshly printed signs proclaiming him a "conservative outsider." He recounted stories familiar to his readers and delivered a red meat speech that targeted coronavirus restrictions and incorporated his attacks on Big Tech. Specifically, he alluded to how social media networks, including Facebook, have banned Trump.

"It’s time to stop complaining about Big Tech," Vance said. "It’s time to start doing something about it."

The campaign is the culmination of a sharp transformation in the five years since his book's release, which coincided with Trump's rise in the GOP and march toward the presidency and tapped into the white working-class zeitgeist of the moment.

"Hillbilly Elegy" chronicled Vance's childhood between rural Kentucky and Middletown, from his mother’s drug addiction and the family's poverty to the decline of manufacturing in southwest Ohio. Vance went on to serve in the Marines and graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

In 2016 interviews to promote his memoir, Vance was candid about his distaste for Trump and voted for independent Evan McMullin that year. "I can't stomach Trump," he told NPR in August 2016, in a quote that his Republican rivals, anticipating his entry to the race, have brandished against him.

That December, in an interview with and The Plain Dealer, Vance acknowledged that Trump had "diagnosed very real problems" but was skeptical that "he had much in the way of positive solutions." He also criticized Trump for using "rhetoric that's not in the best interest of the party or country."

Establishment Republicans, including those aligned with John Kasich, a Trump critic who at the time was Ohio's governor, courted Vance to run for Senate in 2018, but he passed.

Vance cultivates a different image now. He has deleted old tweets, some directly critical of Trump, and uses his Twitter feed to position himself as a leading voice in the culture wars while promoting the institutional distrust nurtured by the former president and his allies.

In April, Vance argued that President Joe Biden’s push for expanded child care favored “the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class.”

Last week, he lashed out at Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for defending the study of critical race theory. "I personally would like American generals to read less about 'white rage' (whatever that is) and more about 'not losing wars,'" he wrote.

On Thursday, Vance peppered his kickoff speech with grievances. He railed against critical race theory, the academic term that's meant to recognize how systemic racism is inherent in American life and that the political right has turned into a signature issue. He also emphasized border security, saying that it isn't fair that a grandmother who complains about border security might be called a racist.

"What if I told you ... that the reason she cares about the southern border is because she knows that the drugs that killed her daughter are the same drugs that might kill her grandson?" Vance said. "What if I told you that she's not racist because she loves her grandbaby more than she loves the approval of people who hate her and hate this country?"

Vance has worked to align with Trump-friendly conservative media figures such as Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon. When he joined Bannon's "War Room" show in May, the former Trump adviser effusively praised him as an “intellectual” leader for the nationalist-populist movement and for the attention his “spicy” tweets had received.

Bannon, who has advanced adherence to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump as a litmus test for GOP candidates, asked for Vance’s thoughts on the matter. Vance answered indirectly while proposing an end to “this mail-in voting bonanza” and saying that Election Day should be a national holiday. He also said he’d support a bipartisan commission to investigate the deadly Jan. 6 riot by pro-Trump supporters at the Capitol — if Republicans were represented by someone like Bannon on any panel.

“I think we’ve got to investigate as much as possible,” Vance said of the 2020 election results. “I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant. And we're going to learn a lot about what happened. But, you know, I think at a basic level we already know mostly what happened.”

Other Republicans in the race have indulged in false or unsubstantiated claims about the last election. Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer, has said the election was stolen from Trump. Jane Timken, who served as Trump’s handpicked chair of the Ohio Republican Party, has said there was widespread fraud.

Also running for the GOP nomination are Cleveland-area businessmen Bernie Moreno, who once called Trump a “maniac” but now embraces the former president's brand, and Mike Gibbons, who raised money for Trump’s campaigns. The primary field could grow even more crowded in the coming weeks. Rep. Mike Turner and state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Indians, are considering GOP bids.

Trump has not endorsed anyone, though he mentioned the four previously declared Republicans during a campaign-style rally last weekend in northeast Ohio.

Rep. Tim Ryan is for now the only major Democratic candidate seeking Portman’s seat.