J.D. Vance emerges as wild card in Ohio GOP Senate primary

CLEVELAND — Conservative author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance has emerged as an "X-factor" in the Ohio Senate race as he considers bringing his name recognition and deep pockets to the already crowded Republican primary.

Vance, the author of the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” has drawn attention from Democrats and Republicans alike in recent weeks, having launched an exploratory committee for a Senate run earlier this month. Meanwhile, super PAC Protect Ohio Values is pushing Vance to pursue a run. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a noted backer of former President TrumpDonald TrumpNew Capitol Police chief to take over Friday Overnight Health Care: Biden officials says no change to masking guidance right now | Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of Medicaid expansion | Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip MORE, donated $10 million to the PAC in March.

While some in Ohio have expressed skepticism about his candidacy, others note that should he run, Vance would start with an undeniable edge.

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“Any candidate who starts out with a $10 million super PAC behind him is someone who cannot be ignored,” said veteran Ohio Republican strategist Mark Weaver.

Underscoring his potential as a formidable opponent, Democrats have also started taking notice. Ohio Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal Negotiators struggle to finish infrastructure deal with clock ticking For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D), who is not up for reelection, has sent out multiple fundraising emails invoking Vance’s potential candidacy.

Vance gained nationwide recognition when “Hillbilly Elegy” was published in 2016, coinciding with Trump’s successful run for president. The memoir, which reflects on Vance’s childhood in Ohio and Kentucky, was seen as an explainer for Trump’s win and his appeal to voters in the rust belt and Appalachia.

“Because J.D. Vance [would be] such an unconventional candidate with a compelling story, I think that may make people nervous, both Democrats and Republicans frankly, because Donald Trump clearly proved that unconventional candidates can be successful, particularly successful in the state of Ohio,” said Capri Cafaro, the former Democratic Ohio State Senate Minority Leader.

In the lead-up to Trump’s presidency, Vance appeared on a number of mainstream outlets, including MSNBC and CNN, to explain the then-presidential candidate’s appeal, though Vance was often critical of him.

"I can't stomach Trump. I think that he's noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place,” Vance told NPR in 2016.

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But five years later Vance has changed his tune, embracing the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party. Vance now makes frequent appearances on Fox News and has railed against left-leaning policy proposals like universal daycare as well as the news media.

He turned heads earlier this month when he tweeted about seeing a group of female rowers in Washington, D.C., wearing masks outside, calling it “just totally insane.”

“What he’s trying to do is get noticed using things that would make primary voters that are Trump voters interested and take notice,” said one Ohio-based Republican strategist.

Vance would be the latest addition to the Buckeye State’s growing Republican Senate primary. Jane Timken, the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party; former state treasurer Josh Mandel; tech company executive Bernie Moreno; and investment banker Mike Gibbons have all declared their candidacies. Rep. Mike TurnerMichael Ray TurnerOvernight Defense: JEDI axed | Pentagon defends Bagram exit | Military justice reform coming soon Military braces for sea change on justice reform Lawmakers warn of growing threats to US satellites from adversaries MORE (R-Ohio) and Ohio state Sen. Matt Dolan (R) are also said to be considering bids.

Mandel, who ran for Senate in 2012 and then for the House in 2018, has name recognition from his previous races and from holding statewide office for eight years. Timken will also be known to Republican primary voters in the state after serving as chair of the state GOP.

While Vance is known in national media circles, strategists say he will have a lot of work ahead of him to build statewide name recognition.

"Nobody knows him, which is a downside because it's a highly expensive state to run a campaign, but at the same time it's cheaper to introduce yourself than reintroduce yourself,” said Nick Everhart, a national GOP media consultant based in Ohio.

On top of that, Vance’s primary challengers will have ample material of him criticizing Trump, which could play badly with primary voters in the state won by eight points in 2020.

Reports of some Republican voters receiving text messages from an unknown number with a Cleveland area code criticizing Vance for his past anti-Trump comments surfaced last month.

"Never Trumper JD Vance called Donald Trump an 'idiot'; And now he thinks he can represent Ohio in the US Senate????" read one of the texts, according to the Toledo Blade.

But any efforts to tie Vance to the anti-Trump wing of the party could depend on whether Trump decides to get involved in the primary.

"He's going to deal with some negative Trump quotes, but if Trump doesn't engage and endorse somebody else, I think he's certainly one of the three to four people that could win this primary,” Everhart said.

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Whoever wins the GOP primary next year will face a challenge going against likely Democratic nominee Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanSix takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer MORE (Ohio), who is not facing any major primary candidates.

Ryan has worked to tout his connections to the Mahoning Valley, a largely working-class part of the state that has a history of steel production going back to the 19th century.

While Trump became the first Republican last year to win Mahoning County since 1956, Ryan won the county reelection there last year by nearly 14 points.

Additionally, if Ryan does not face multiple well-known primary opponents, he will likely come out of the primary unscathed.

"Whoever wins the primary, Tim Ryan is going to be a tough one for all of them,” Everhart said. “Ryan doesn't have a nasty primary. He's going to raise a lot of money."

Some GOP strategists argue that Vance should be cautious about going full-on Trump ahead of the general election if he ultimately decides to enter the race.

The Ohio GOP strategist warned that Vance could lose his image of someone who understands the experiences of the working middle class in states like Ohio and be branded as another Trump loyalist.

“There’s a middle ground of who he is,” the strategist said. “What I’m concerned about is will he go overboard on trying to appeal to the Trump populism and lose himself, and lose who he really is.”