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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Vance won Trump's favor and the GOP nomination. Is the Senate next?

jd vance
Cory Sharber
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WVXU
With his wife Usha at his side, J.D. Vance addresses a crowd of election night supporters at Cincinnati's Duke Energy Convention Center after winning his party's nomination to become Ohio's Republican U.S. Senate candidate in November on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

In the end, Donald Trump clearly had the clout with Ohio Republicans to pull venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance out of the middle of the pack in one of the most contentious primary elections in Ohio history and push him across the finish line into first place.

With 85% of the vote counted, Vance on Tuesday led the seven-candidate pack with 31.5%, substantially more than the 24.2% for former state treasurer Josh Mandel and 22% for State Sen. Matt Dolan.

Before a crowd of supporters that night at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati, Vance gave Trump credit for picking him out of the crowd less than three weeks before the election.

"A lot of fake news media, they wanted to write a story that this would be the death of Donald Trump's America First agenda. It is not dead,'' Vance said.

jd vance donald trump
Joe Maiorana
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AP
Senate candidate JD Vance greets former President Donald Trump at a rally at the Delaware County Fairground, April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio, to endorse Republican candidates ahead of the Ohio primary on May 3.

Much of this year-long battle drew national attention because of the often nasty, often inflammatory rhetoric of the campaign.

Dolan, a state senator who did not seek Trump's endorsement but instead ran a campaign against the Biden administration, put out a statement immediately after the race was called where he endorsed Vance's campaign to win the Ohio senate seat this fall.

"Ohio Republicans have spoken and now it’s time to look forward, united in our conservative convictions to make our state and nation, a better place to live, work, and raise a family," Dolan said.

Vance's path to victory Tuesday led him on nearly the same route through Ohio that Trump took in 2016 and 2020, when he won Ohio by 8 percentage points each time.

The path ran through the counties of Southeast Ohio's Appalachian foothills, the farm country of the rural counties of Western Ohio, and the deeply conservative suburban counties that surround Ohio's largest cities.

How Vance got here

Vance's life story is one full of contradictions, twists and turns, and total transformations until he finally landed as a wealthy Trump acolyte.

This is a man who grew up in Middletown to a dysfunctional family of Appalachian transplants, where he was raised by his grandparents, "Mamaw" and "Papaw," going by the name James Hamel (the surname of his stepfather) until he became an adult, left Middletown and took on the surname of his grandfather.

The contradictions in his life stand out like a sore thumb.

He left Middletown to join the Marines, where he did a tour of duty in Iraq, acting as a public relations specialist for the Corps, and then from there to Ohio State University for a bachelor's degree in political science and then off to Yale for his law degree.

Vance is a man, who only six years ago, while he was touring the country promoting his book Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir of his childhood and teenaged years in Middletown, was quite open about his contempt for Donald Trump, then emerging as the inevitable Republican presidential nominee.

He called Trump an "idiot." He called him "reprehensible." He said in a Fresh Air interview that he might have to "hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton." He even went so far, in a Facebook message to his former college roommate — now a Democratic state representative from Georgia — as to suggest that Trump might become "America's Hitler."

By the 2020 campaign, when Vance was already plotting his run for the Senate in his home state, he tried to make amends with Trump by saying that he realized later that Trump was a figure who brought hope to the desperate and disillusioned people like those he grew up with in Middletown.

Everyone knows, even his most ardent supporters, that Donald Trump is not a man who forgives what he sees as insults or transgressions. Redemption does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

So why, in the waning weeks of the campaign, did he choose Vance to endorse, with most of Vance's significant competitors — Mandel, Gibbons and Timken — clamoring for Trump's blessing and declaring their undying loyalty to the 45th president at every turn?

There has been much speculation that Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who sees himself as a conservative kingmaker, had something to do with bringing them together.

peter thiel
Carolyn Kaster
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AP
Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel looks over the podium before the start of the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Thiel, is a Silicon Valley billionaire and advisor to former President Donald Trump.

Vance was a protégé of Thiel during the Middletown native's years living in San Francisco and working in the Silicon Valley; and Thiel raised millions for Trump's campaigns in 2016 and 2020 and has the former president's ear.

Early in the campaign, Thiel poured $10 million into a super PAC supporting Vance called Protect Ohio Values. After Trump gave Vance an endorsement, Thiel threw another $3.5 million into the pot so Protect Ohio Values could flood the airwaves with ads touting the Trump endorsement.

Trump's speech in Nebraska last Saturday where he appeared to have forgotten Vance's name — at one point calling him "J.D. Mandel" — set off gales of laughter among Vance's opponents in both parties.

A lot of Vance's campaign rhetoric had to do with what he called the undue influence of high-tech and social media. It was at best ironic, since Vance made a lot of money investing in high-tech firms and his patron, Thiel, was one of the original investors in Facebook and the creator of PayPal.

The fact that Vance has spent most of his adult life outside of Ohio — principally in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley — caused Northeast Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who easily won the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination Tuesday, to tag him with the nickname "Silicon Valley Vance."

Voters can expect Ryan and his allies to paint Vance as an opportunistic carpetbagger, a political shape-shifter who changes his message and his life's work anytime it is to his advantage.

Still, he has Trump in his corner, who did, after all, win Ohio's electoral votes twice, each time by 8 percentage points.

For the primary election, Vance bought into the Trump lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. As the GOP nominee for the Senate seat, Vance may have a hard time selling that notion to Independent voters in Ohio.