Columns

'Hillbilly Elegy' Author J.D. Vance Shakes Up Crowded Ohio Senate Race

AP Photo/Jeff Dean

J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, announced that he is entering the race to replace Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who said that he would not run for reelection.

Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times #1 best seller, which was turned into a highly acclaimed movie last year, recounts Vance’s childhood and young adult years growing up in a declining Rust Belt town with a drug-addicted mother and an absent father, in a family rife with dysfunction. After graduating high school, Vance joined the Marines and served in Iraq. He returned home and attended Ohio State University and later Yale Law. He eventually became a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Vance moved his family back to Ohio in 2017 to start a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic—and “because it’s home.” He wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

I’ve long worried whether I’ve become a part of this problem. For two years, I’d lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.

Hillbilly Elegy has been largely credited with explaining, in practical terms, who Trump voters are and why they propelled him to victory.

Vance, who did not support Trump in 2016 but was a vociferous supporter of his re-election bid and agenda in 2020, kicked off his campaign Thursday at a factory in his hometown, Middletown. “We need a new politics for a new generation,” Vance, 36, said. “The old way of doing things ain’t working.”

“I think what we need in Washington is someone who understands how the elites plunder this country and then blame us for it in the process,” Vance said. “I think we need people in Washington who are fighters, and not just fighters, but smart fighters, because there are lot of fighters in Washington, D.C. They just fight for the wrong things.” Instead, Vance said we need people in Washington who know “how the system works” and how to reform it to make the country better. “And that’s why I’m running to be your next U.S. senator for the state of Ohio.”

Vance, who for a time worked at Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, vowed to break up Big Tech monopolies: “We’re gonna go after them; we’re going to break up their monopolies, we’re going to make it illegal for them to steal your data and then sell it back to you,” he said. He’s putting his money where his mouth is, having recently invested in the Rumble video platform, which has become popular with Trump supporters.

Vance enters a crowded field that includes former State Treasurer Josh Mandel, former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, businessman Mike Gibbons, and seven others. Before Vance entered the race, Mandel was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. In 2012, with two successful terms as state treasurer under his belt and a stint in the Ohio legislature, he ran for the Senate seat now occupied by Sherrod Brown, losing by six points in a race expected to be a blow-out win for the Democrat. He filed to run against Brown again in 2018 but withdrew from the race citing his wife’s health issues. The two later divorced. Mandel is currently the only candidate in the race who has held elected office. He’s centering his campaign on continuing Trump’s Ameria First agenda and aligning himself with Trump’s base in the state, having recently declared that the election was “stolen” from Trump. His campaign has been leaking like a sieve in recent days, with former donors and campaign staffers complaining about a toxic work environment related to his chief campaign fundraiser, with whom Mandel is reportedly in a relationship.

Related: Hillbilly Elegy’ Author Eviscerates Woke Joint Chiefs General’s Priorities

After Mandel withdrew from the 2018 Senate race, Mike Gibbons and former Congressman Jim Renacci duked it out for the GOP nomination. Gibbons crashed and burned, losing to Renacci (now running for governor) 31-47. It’s doubtful that he has the wherewithal to mount a successful high-profile campaign on the national stage. The same goes for Timken, who has struggled to convince the Republican base of her loyalty to Trump.

On the Democrat side, Congressman Tim Ryan, a hot yoga-practicing Democrat representing the Rust Belt in eastern Ohio, is the party’s best hope of taking control of a longtime Republican Senate seat. A matchup between Ryan—who, like Joe Biden, claims to be an average Joe representing blue-collar values but caucuses with the hard left—and Vance—a political outsider with genuine blue-collar bona fides—could be very interesting.

Ryan, a nine-term congressman, was re-elected in 2016, but Trump carried three of the five counties in his district, which has been reliably Democrat for as long as anyone can remember. In 2018, however, Ryan cruised to victory with 61 percent of the vote. His most recent FEC report shows him with just over $1 million cash on hand—nowhere near enough to compete in a race that will play out on the national stage. But make no mistake: Democrats will lie, cheat, and steal to get Ryan (presuming he’s the nominee) into that Senate seat. Vance, of course, begins his campaign with zeroes in the cash-on-hand column. It remains to be seen whether he can fundraise or who donors will support in GOP primary. Vance’s ties to Silicon Valley—and its vast wealth—could give him an advantage. However, his support for Trump, the Second Amendment, election integrity, border control, and traditional families could make him a persona non grata on the Left Coast.

This will be a fascinating race to watch.