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Analysis: New poll suggests J.D. Vance should be taken seriously as a Senate candidate

JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author of 'Hillbilly Elegy,' addresses a rally Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Middletown, Ohio, where he announced he is joining the crowded Republican race for the Ohio U.S. Senate seat being left by Rob Portman.
Jeffrey Dean
JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author of 'Hillbilly Elegy,' addresses a rally Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Middletown, Ohio, where he announced he is joining the crowded Republican race for the Ohio U.S. Senate seat being left by Rob Portman.

For weeks now, I've been trying to figure out why some of GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance's rivals and their deep-pocket friends have been spending mega-bucks to tear down the Hillbilly Elegy author's reputation among Ohio's Trumpiest Republican voters.

Now I know.

They really are scared to death of him, even though he is a complete political rookie.

And now I have hard evidence.

The Trafalgar Group, an independent polling firm based in Atlanta, conducted a poll of 1,053 likely Ohio Republican primary voters on Dec. 12-13 that shows Vance running a solid second in a six-candidate field with 14.9% support, jammed right between the two candidates who have spent at least $1.5 million so far on 30-second TV attack ads.

The two are former state treasurer and unsuccessful Senate candidate in 2012 Josh Mandel (atop the poll with 21.4%) and investment banker Mike Gibbons (polling at 11.9%).

This is not some candidate-bought phony-baloney poll that campaigns like to leak to the media to make it look like they are great honking successes among the voters.

Trafalgar Group is a legitimate polling firm that was one of the few to accurately predict that Donald Trump would win the 2016 election over Hillary Clinton.

This appears to be turning into a real race.

"You folks in Ohio have a tiger by the tail," said Robert C. Cahaly, senior strategist and pollster for the Trafalgar Group. "You've got a real race on your hands."

Do not ask me why the 37-year-old author and venture capitalist who put his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, on the map with Hillbilly Elegy is running so strong in the polls. I'm not at all sure.

Maybe it says something about the overall weakness of the GOP field, with six major candidates vying to take the place of Republican incumbent Rob Portman, who is not running for re-election.

jd vance
Jeff Dean

With one exception, the candidates on the GOP side of the race to replace Portman have conducted what has been the ugliest, most mean-spirited campaigns in Ohio history.

And all of this vitriol and just plain rudeness comes from GOP candidates who have basically done nothing but try to kowtow to Donald Trump, a man severely challenged in the civility department. They yearn for their Fearless Leader's endorsement, which he has yet to give, in hopes that it will draw the minions who helped him win Ohio in two straight presidential elections.

Only State Sen. Matt Dolan, a suburban Cleveland politician whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, hasn’t joined in the suck-up-to-Trump games and it has landed him in fifth place in the Trafalgar Group poll, with only 5.3% support.

Vance is getting clobbered on the air by Mandel's friends in the ultra-conservative Club for Growth and by Gibbons' campaign because he had some very disparaging things to say about Trump back in 2016, when Vance was riding high with the success of his book and was busy hawking the book on every TV talk show he could find.

Well, one thing we know for certain – videotape lasts forever.

You can't say something controversial on video and then take it back. Somebody is going to be there to throw it back in your face.

Gibbons and the Club for Growth were ready, willing and able to teach Vance this lesson.

"I'm a 'Never Trump' guy," Vance says in one of the video clips. "I never liked him. As somebody who doesn’t like Trump, I might have to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton."

Another clip: "I didn’t vote for Trump because I can't stomach him. I think that he is noxious."

By the time the 2020 presidential election came around, Vance had changed his tune on Trump, saying he supported the 45th president because he could see how much his presidency meant to the working poor he wrote about in Hillbilly Elegy.

"When everybody from the left wing media to failed Senate candidates and their D.C. establishment allies are spending millions attacking J.D., it means only one thing: J.D. is winning," Taylor Van Kirk, press secretary of the Vance campaign, said to WVXU earlier this month.

Well, if not "winning," at least within shouting distance, if you believe the Trafalgar Group poll. And I have no reason not to.

Here's the thing – this primary election is on May 4, almost five months from now.

Five months is an eternity in politics. Anything can happen. The 6 percentage point lead that Mandel has today, according to the poll, can do one of three things: stay about the same, grow, or evaporate to the point where Vance is on top.

After all, the same Trafalgar poll showed that 34.4% of likely GOP primary voters said they are either undecided or backing another candidate. That's a whole lot of undecided.

Cahaly said that undecided number is incredibly important.

"You have 34% undecided and four candidates in double digits," Cahaly said. "I don't think I've ever seen a race like that."

Yes, if Trump endorses a candidate, that very well could seal the deal for the Fearless Leader's favored one.

In the end, though, it might be that being the Trumpiest candidate of them all "wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit," as FDR's first vice president, John Nance Garner, once said of the vice presidency. Except he didn't really say "spit."

Yes, I know, Trump won Ohio twice – by 8 percentage points each. Yada, yada, yada.

Elections for statewide offices in Ohio, historically, are a different kettle of fish than presidential contests.

In state contests, Republicans who are conservative but more moderate in their behavior are elected – Bill Saxbe, George Voinovich, Rob Portman, Mike DeWine, even John Kasich.

And Democrats who are unabashed liberals – from Sen. Stephen M. Young to Howard Metzenbaum to Dick Celeste to Sherrod Brown – have been elected and thrived in Ohio for a very long time.

In this Senate race, the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination is Rep. Tim Ryan, an old-fashioned Democratic liberal politician who has won election over the years with the votes of a whole lot of conservative Republican voters.

One of these Trump-loving GOP candidates will win that May 4 primary, and it would behoove them to try to get back to the moderate center of Ohio politics. And if they can pull that off, they will find Tim Ryan sitting there, occupying the middle ground.

Maybe dissing Trump in 2016 as Vance did wasn't such a bad idea after all.

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