Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has announced that he will not be running for reelection in 2022, setting up a competitive race to replace him in what has become a largely red state. The two most prominent Republicans who have said they’re running—Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer, and Jane Timken, a prominent party official—are already engaged in mutual, MAGA-fueled recriminations over who can most emphatically denounce the other’s history of associations with other local GOP figures, like former Gov. John Kasich and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who have been critical of Donald Trump. Mandel achieved what was probably the nascent campaign’s biggest coup in February, scoring a speaking spot at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he used to attack Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine as a liberal wimp for having imposed modest pandemic-related restrictions during a pandemic.
There’s a big ol’ Mothman monster looming over the race, though: J.D. Vance, the Ohio native, venture capitalist, and Hillbilly Elegy author. He hasn’t formally announced a campaign, but there’s already a super PAC set up to support his potential run. Super PACs aren’t technically allowed to coordinate with candidates, but the pro-Vance PAC announced this week that it’s gotten donations from right-wing techno-authoritarians Peter Thiel and Robert Mercer; Thiel’s was for $10 million, which would be huge by the standards of a presidential race, let alone a Senate one. This suggests certain people have certain reasons to believe Vance is leaning strongly toward running.
So does Vance’s Twitter timeline, which is currently bursting with right-wing talking points about Dr. Seuss, “open borders,” and the alleged feminization of the military. While Hillbilly Elegy positioned Vance as the kind of conservative that liberals might be able to get along with and learn from, his recent retweets and appearances on programs hosted by Tucker Carlson, Dinesh D’Souza, and Sebastian Gorka mark a turn toward his movement’s more hostile, sneering side. In particular, Vance looks to be setting himself up as an Ohio version of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who purports to have intellectual convictions that require him to support Trump and the Trumpist “working class” in its war against the “wokeness” and censorship imposed by the condescending, educated rich. One particular enemy of Trump’s and Hawley’s whom Vance has taken recent aim at is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos:
As value-neutral political strategy, this seems like a potentially winning approach. Trump’s success in Ohio—he won it easily, twice—shows that the state is responsive to a message about cultural changes related to diversity. As has been highlighted in places like Georgia and Texas, these changes often correspond with high-tech economic development. Startups and larger information-age firms attract demographically diverse workers with college degrees, who tend to vote Democratic, and to push their companies to take socially progressive positions. In 2020, Republicans lost at the top of the ticket but won a number of local races—some in diversifying places like suburban Houston—while playing up an anti-progressive, anti-BLM backlash. Ohio has its own growing hub of corporate campuses and tech startups—Columbus—and a Republican running statewide could do worse than villainizing the BLM-supporting young professionals who live there.
It’s a tricky approach for someone like J.D. Vance, though. When he’s not attacking Jeff Bezos as a plutocratic patron of the radical left and an enemy of the working class, Vance is doing things like co-managing the “Rise of the Rest” venture fund—a fund that seeds entrepreneurs in places that aren’t traditional tech centers and proudly touts Jeff Bezos as an investor. In the venture capital part of Vance’s career, he encourages and benefits from the social upheaval he is claiming, as a political figure, to deplore.
This is not a secret, or an unflattering spin on cherry-picked facts, but simply how Vance and his companies describe his work. In 2017, after Hillbilly Elegy took off, he quite publicly moved to Columbus. There, he lived in the gentrified, LGBTQ-friendly German Village neighborhood and hosted a stop on a bus tour promoting Rise of the Rest, which he continues to advise. While Vance has since moved to a wealthy neighborhood in Cincinnati, a more traditionally conservative area, he still invests in companies like AppHarvest, a sustainability-focused high-tech farming venture with a diverse leadership team, through his new fund, Narya. AppHarvest lists a main office in the liberal outpost of Lexington, Kentucky. Martha Stewart is on its board of directors.
Meanwhile, he’s firing off attacks on the purportedly “vile” ruling class like this one:
That’s a coded defense of the QAnon movement, which does not in fact simply believe that some powerful people are predators, but rather that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a huge, organized child-abuse cult in which the leaders of the Democratic Party participate. It might be worth noting, though, that in reality the actual Jeffrey Epstein made much of his personal fortune by managing money for a retail industry billionaire named Les Wexner, who worked closely with Epstein for years and described him as a “loyal friend.” Wexner is a major player in Ohio business, politics, and philanthropy who’s donated to a veterans leadership PAC on whose board Vance sat and a prep school for which Vance once headlined a fundraiser in something called “the Party Barn at the Wexner Residence.” If Vance wants to make outrageous insinuations about the vile ruling class, that’s his choice, and it might benefit him politically. But it also raises the question of why exactly he has spent so much energy making sure he is one of its members.