J.D. Vance’s fiery U.S. Senate campaign marks a ‘changing of the guard’ for Ohio Republicans in the post-Trump era

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Now just a step away from the U.S. Senate, J.D. Vance’s victory in last week’s Republican primary marks a sea change for the state GOP in the post-Trump era.

Far from the genteel style and relatively moderate politics Ohioans have seen for years from Republicans like George Voinovich, Mike DeWine and Rob Portman, Vance ran this year as a populist, right-wing culture warrior. One of Vance’s vanquished opponents, former Ohio Republican Party chairman Jane Timken, described the approach from Vance and other candidates as such: “They wake up every day and try to get canceled on Twitter”

But especially since Vance is such an unknown political commodity as a first-time candidate, how that would translate to Washington, D.C., both on style and on substance, is an open question.

Shedding his former persona as an anti-Trump conservative commentator, Vance while on the campaign trail leaned into hot-button cultural fights over illegal immigration and racial and gender identity, describing the “childless cat ladies” and “groomers” he said dominated the Democratic Party. In doing so, he vowed to use the power of the government to punish “woke” elements in government, business and academia. And he embraced lies about the 2020 presidential election while inviting Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right politician, to campaign with him in his closing weeks.

Along with a late endorsement from ex-President Donald Trump, that all added up to a winning campaign, with Vance getting 31% of the vote in a race that catered to the party’s most extreme elements. Timken, who got Portman’s endorsement, got 6%. Now, he’s the first in a next generation of Ohio Republican candidates who will come up entirely in the post-Trump era. He will face Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in the November general election to replace Portman, who is retiring.

But especially given Vance’s lack of a voting record, and his very public political transformation, the question remains: how much of what Vance said on the campaign trail did he really mean? And how will he represent Ohio if he makes it to the U.S. Senate?

Ohio native and University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik said stylistically, Vance campaigned in a way that clearly was dramatically different than his predecessors, aligning more with the Republican Party’s modern, pugilistic “talk radio wing” that’s interested in “owning the libs” and generally being loud.

“That sort of part of the party has just grown and grown. And I think Vance is sort of emblematic of that,” he said.

But in the post-Trump era, which has seen Ohio lose its status as a swing state and drift into the reliably Republican column, Kondik said Ohioans are likely to see more campaigns like the one Vance ran this year.

Besides Vance, several other Trumpy candidates won in Ohio’s primary election last week. Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a Trump-backed candidate, finished on top in the GOP primary for Ohio’s 13th congressional district, as did J.R. Majewski, who became famous for painting Trump’s campaign logo on his lawn, along with symbols associated with the QAnon conspiracy movement, got the GOP nomination in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District after Trump shouted him out at his Ohio political rally. Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide, cruised to the nomination in Ohio’s 7th Congressional District after incumbent GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs decided to retire.

“I do think this is sort of a changing of the guard moment,” Kondik said. “And my guess is, as time goes on in Ohio, there probably will be more candidates who look more like Vance than they do like DeWine and Portman. That brand of politics, whatever you think of it, clearly has been a positive for Republicans in Ohio because of the changes that have happened in the state since Trump emerged.”

But what’s less clear is how Vance might actually govern if he’s elected, Kondik said.

“I guess the question is, how much different would he actually be on casting votes than a Rob Portman,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that. Even when Trump was president, he signed a tax-cut bill in 2017 that was very much standard Republican fare. Does that change the next time Republicans are in power? Is their focus on different issues? I don’t really know.”

Mark Kvamme, a Columbus venture capitalist who’s known Vance through investing and political circles for years and who’s close to former Gov. John Kasich, said beyond his “firebrand” public persona, the Vance he knows is a thoughtful person with sincerely held beliefs.

“I find him to be a very measured guy. I think he’ll evaluate the pros and cons of every issue and decide where to go from there,” Kvamme said.

“I hope he’s more like Rob Portman in the end,” said Kvamme, who hosted an event introducing Vance to skeptical Central Ohio business leaders last fall. “Rob is a fabulous senator and so on. I think to be successful and really represent the state effectively, you’ve got to be a uniter, not a divider. I think in his heart, J.D.’s a uniter.”

Izzi Levi, a spokesperson for the Ryan campaign, called Vance a political opportunist, referencing his time living in California and his extensive backing from Peter Thiel, a famous Silicon Valley investor who spent $15 million, a Senate record, helping Vance win his race.

“J.D. Vance is a phony and a fraud who left Ohio for California and has so little regard for the people of this state that he will say anything to try to further his political ambitions,” Levi said. “After cashing in on Ohioans’ struggles in his book, Vance spent the bulk of his adult life working in Big Tech and sipping wine on the coasts, and the second he got back to Washington, he would be a reliable vote for the anti-worker Big Tech billionaires and other wealthy elites bankrolling his campaign.”

In part due to his recent public re-invention and his lack of a voting record, Vance’s specific ideology can be difficult to pin down.

But his prolific history as a political commentator provides endless fodder to mine and dates back to at least 2009, when Vance wrote under a pen name for a website run by David Frum, a conservative writer who later emerged as a prominent Trump critic. As was revealed last week in a treasure trove of information that was published on the web by a pro-Vance super PAC, Vance wrote articles for Frum’s website praising former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, the moderate former Republican presidential candidate, and endorsing significant cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare to balance the federal budget deficit.

“I am not one of those conservatives who shudders at any mention of tax increases, but like every thoughtful American, I realize that soaking the rich is a painfully inadequate solution,” Vance wrote in 2011. “The way forward is as obvious as it is politically difficult: streamline the tax code, reform current entitlements and avoid enacting new ones.”

But his public profile lifted off after the publication of his 2016 memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which documented working his way through Yale Law School following his troubled upbringing in Middletown, Ohio. The book emerged in elite circles as a way of interpreting Trump’s appeal in the Rust Belt and landed Vance numerous public speaking slots and a job as a commentator on CNN.

Beyond his well-documented pivot on Trump, the views Vance used his public platform to share include some contradictions. For instance, he bemoaned “conspiratorial” conservative media in 2016 before wholeheartedly embracing it as a Senate candidate; he said during a speech at Ohio State University in 2020 that “of course, we of have a climate problem” that he said was “largely caused” by carbon emissions in China before doubting on the Senate campaign trail how much an effect humans had on climate change at all.

Vance also has praised Democratic politicians at times, including writing an op-ed in early 2017 warmly toasting outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama as an inspirational public figure who he disagreed with. He also repeatedly expressed relief, as recently as 2020, that Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare, one of Trump’s main goals upon entering the White House that has since vanished from public debate.

Through it all, Vance has settled on a Trump-style fusion of nationalism, anti-elitism, cultural conservatism and openness to bigger-government approaches to things like taxes, tariffs and social services, including health care.

Vance consistently has been opposed to abortion, which landed him an underrated endorsement from Ohio Right to Life late in the primary campaign. While he’s expressed some support for gay equality in the past, he’s more recently denounced progressive views on gender identity, and harshly criticized a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said workers can’t be fired for being gay or transgender.

Vance also has positioned himself as trying to advance alternative ideas, instead of just stating rote opposition. For instance, when asked last month about the possibility of forgiving student-loan debt, Vance proposed tying it to some kind of tax on large universities’ endowments while making student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Recently, Vance has affiliated with American Compass, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C. founded in 2020 that describes itself as challenging traditional Republican orthodoxy on free markets and small-government policy approaches in the post-Trump era. The group, for instance, has proposed banning companies from buying back shares of their own stock and requiring companies to have a financial obligation to pay workers ahead of a bankruptcy. It’s also studied tying President Joe Biden’s permanent expansion of the tax credit to some sort of work requirement.

Oren Cass, the group’s executive director, in an interview described Vance as measured and in search of specific policy solutions to the problems he sees in the world.

“I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to have people who, if you want to have thoughtful, substantive people be successful and get elected, then their message on the stump or social media is going to have a different tone and a different emphasis than the kind of work they do in a policy brainstorming session,” said Cass, a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney. “I don’t necessarily see those things as inconsistent.”

During his campaign, a consistent Vance theme that set him apart from traditional Republicans writ large was his rhetoric around big business. While differentiating between smaller businesses and multi-national corporations, he signaled he might back raising taxes on companies that outsource jobs or changing federal law to allow employees to sue companies who require diversity training that includes material on white privilege.

In his election-night speech in Cincinnati, Vance presented his victory as a win for a worker-oriented Republican Party and a loss for the Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that backs the traditional Republican diet of tax cuts and limited government, and which helped fund millions of dollars in anti-Vance attack ads.

“I really think this race was a referendum on what kind of a Republican Party we want and what kind of a country we want,” Vance said. “We went to battle, ladies and gentlemen, against one of the grossest organizations in the professional establishment in Washington … The question presented in this primary was, do we want to have a border that protects our citizens? Do we want to ship our jobs to China? Or do we want to keep them right here, in America, for American workers and the American people?”

In his version of a pitch toward bipartisanship, Vance framed himself as opposed to the corrupt Republican and Democratic establishment alike. He said Republicans had refused to “do anything” against the Sackler family that owns the company that produced Oxycontin, the opioid painkiller, while saying Democrats “are actively encouraging the Mexican drug cartels to flood us with even worse drugs” like fentanyl.

“How about we put ‘em both in jail, ladies and gentlemen?” Vance said.

Members of the Republican party’s business-friendly wing in Ohio are still digesting Vance’s win and trying to decide what it means for them. But for all of Vance’s rhetoric, one Ohio Republican said the business leaders they talk to don’t appear to be worried.

“I don’t think anyone takes seriously that he is going to be openly and actively hostile to business interests,” said the Republican, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about Vance. “He went into the capital formation business himself, and Peter Thiel is his buddy. I don’t think anyone thinks he was doing anything besides striking populist themes to get elected.”

Asked during a call with Ohio reporters last week how he differs from past Ohio Republicans, Vance said he hadn’t closely studied the issue.

But, he said all Republican candidates, whether they’ve been on the ballot or not, will unite politically in trying to win seats in Columbus and Washington, D.C. He said he would have no trouble voting for Gov. Mike DeWine, a popular punching bag for Vance and other candidates in the Senate primary. (Vance described DeWine as a “good friend” in 2018.)

“I’m a business guy in the first time I’ve ever run for political office. I imagine that’s relatively uncommon,” Vance said. “But I also think we have a great state party here that’s ready to win in November.”

Bob Paduchik, the state Republican Party chair who managed Portman’s 2010 Senate campaign, also emphasized Vance’s investing background while saying most Ohio Republicans had run for office several times before making the leap to the U.S. Senate ticket. He said ORP staff and Vance’s team sat down following the election to plot their November strategy.

“I think with J.D., he definitely has been extremely successful in the business community, and he’s bringing that expertise here as a candidate for office,” Paduchik said. “I’ll tell you this he is a quick learner in the school of politics… I feel great having him lead the federal ballot here in Ohio.”

Chris Gagin, a St. Clairsville lawyer and Trump critic who hosted Vance at an event in 2016 as the then-chairman of the Belmont County Republican Party, said he expects Vance will dial down his rhetoric as the race continues, leaning into his background as a Yale-educated author. Suburban voters are now the state’s biggest battleground, although Republicans have managed to offset weakness there in recent elections by running up bigger numbers in the state elsewhere.

“I think that’s going to sell to the Republicans voters and maybe even some conservative Democratic voters he’s not crazy in the same way Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are, even though he’s hanging out with them,” Gagin said. “It’s just really interesting to see form my perspective if he can toe that line: he’s full MAGA but doesn’t scare the more moderate voters.”

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