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Analysis: Can J.D. Vance Take - And Pack - A Punch In Senate Race?

jd vance
Jeff Dean
Vance during the announcement of his campaign for Senate, Thursday, July 1, in Middletown.

Author J.D. Vance spent nearly as many months exploring a run for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat as Lewis and Clark spent exploring the wilderness of the American West.

Now, though, he is an official, declared Republican candidate.

He joins a crowded field of conservative Republican Senate candidates hoping and praying to become the successor to Sen. Rob Portman, who is clearly fed up with the toxicity of life on Capitol Hill and is retiring.

Vance finally went from "exploring" to "running" last Thursday evening in front of a crowd of about 300 on a factory floor in his hometown of Middletown – a tough, gritty town built on the steel industry. He's the most famous person from Middletown since baseball player Kyle Schwarber, who is now smashing home runs with great regularity for the Washington Nationals.

Vance's claim to fame and fortune is Hillbilly Elegy, the best-selling book that tells the story of his hard scrabble childhood and youth in a town full of Kentuckians who traveled north to Middletown, attracted by the lure of well-paying jobs, mostly at Armco Steel, now AK Steel.

The rest of the field so far don't seem to know what to make of Vance – is he a flash-in-the-pan, a threat to their plans, a serious candidate of substance, or a raw rookie who will kick ground balls all over the infield?

The other four official candidates – former Ohio GOP party chair Jane Timken, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, and Cleveland area businessmen Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno – can't seem to go for more than five minutes without expressing their undying loyal and servitude to their beau ideal of American politics, Donald J. Trump.

They quite clearly see no irony in the fact that, in 2016, Mandel wanted Marco Rubio of Florida to be the GOP presidential nominee, while Timken was rooting for then-Ohio governor John Kasich. Moreno once called Trump a "maniac."

The other GOP Senate candidates also see no irony in their jabs at Vance for saying in 2016, while talking about his book with NPR, that "I can't stomach Trump."

Politicians being two-faced? I can hardly fathom it.

Vance has his own contradictions to deal with.

Peter Thiel, a co-creator of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, is a gazillionaire Big Tech executive who has given $10 million to a Super PAC formed to promote Vance as a Senate candidate.

Nonetheless, Vance tweets often about his displeasure with Big Tech, particularly social media sites – like Facebook – that have banned Trump.

One of Vance's immediate problems is that, despite the enormous publicity Hillbilly Elegy and its film version received, most Ohioans – even Republican primary voters – have no idea who Vance is.

Money – and lots of it – can solve the problem of lack of name recognition. Solve it in a hurry.

"Vance can raise a lot of money from around the country, which is a huge advantage,'' said Mack Mariani, professor of political science at Xavier University.

What makes Vance different from the rest, Mariani said, is that he has been a non-politician and "he doesn't have to run around talking about Trump all the time."

"He has a message that is beyond Trump,'' Mariani said. "He can, and will, talk about all of Trump's issues without using Trump's name."

David Niven, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, wonders if a non-politician like Vance is ready for the street fight that lies ahead.

"I don't think J.D. Vance can take a punch,'' Niven said. "He's never spent a day in the world of politics."

True, especially going up against a political gut-puncher like Mandel.

"We'll see how Vance takes it,'' Niven said. "He may decide politics is not much fun."

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.