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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: J.D. Vance 'rejects' idea that he believes women should stay in abusive marriages

jd vance
Jeff Dean
/
AP

There is no question that J.D. Vance, the Middletown native and Republican candidate for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, currently has a problem with women voters.

The question is whether it is a problem of his own making or a problem spun out of thin air by his political opponents.

Not surprisingly, Vance, in an interview with me earlier this week, says it is the latter.

"Disgusting," he called attempts to paint him as someone who believes women should stay in violent marriages.

Nonetheless, women voters, domestic violence advocates and supporters of his Democratic opponent, Congressman Tim Ryan, have been flooding social media for the past two weeks over a video clip from last September of Vance speaking at a California high school where they say he said women should stay in abusive, violent marriages.

It was released by Vice News, along with a story saying Vance believes women should stay in such marriages for the sake of the children.

Earlier this week, the Ohio Democratic Party organized a virtual press conference with advocates for victims of domestic violence and Democratic women elected officials to hammer at Vance.

Lydia Strauss of Columbus, who has worked with domestic violence victims for more than two decades, accused Vance of spreading dangerous rhetoric.

“Vance thinks we should stay in violent marriages, he wants to make abortion illegal nationally, he called rape 'inconvenient' and even compared abortion to slavery," Strauss said.

Many women voters — particularly suburban women voters who could end up deciding this race — don't trust Vance for a number of reasons, including his support for Donald Trump, whose endorsement probably won the GOP primary for him; his strong anti-abortion views, and now, the California comments on domestic violence.

So, what exactly did Vance say at this high school in California last fall that has created such a firestorm? Here it is, word for word:

"This is one of the great tricks that I think the sexual revolution pulled on the American populace, which is the idea that like, ‘Well, OK, these marriages were fundamentally, you know, they were maybe even violent, but certainly they were unhappy. And so getting rid of them and making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear, that’s going to make people happier in the long term. Maybe it works out for the moms and dads. But it didn’t really work out for the kids of those marriages."

You, of course, can decide for yourself what you think Vance meant by that statement.

Vance insisted to me, repeatedly, that his words were being taken out of context, and that it was a criticism of "progressives."

"What I am arguing is that the progressive proponents of a sexual revolution are saying that and I reject it," Vance said. "I don’t think the majority of marriages are unhappy or are violent."

Vance, who wrote of growing up in a sometimes violent and abusive family in his best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, said that he, too, was a victim of violent abuse as a child.

"I have never argued that women should stay in that kind of marriage," Vance said. "It's disgusting for them to say that someone who has been the victim of domestic violence would say that women should tolerate that."

Tim Ryan, as you might expect, jumped all over the Vice News story in late July, tweeting out the video from the California event on July 25.

"JD Vance thinks parents should stay in violent marriages 'for the sake of their kids.' That's not just wrong, it's unbelievably dangerous," Ryan said in his tweet.

The issue of violent marriages is not going to go away for Vance anytime soon. I would be surprised if the Ryan campaign — or a third party independent expenditure group — didn't crank out a TV ad for a statewide buy sometime soon, an ad suggesting that Vance doesn't care about women's health or safety.

Some people believe that the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) did a pre-emptive strike this week with a $1 million ad buy in major Ohio media market for a 30-second spot in which Vance's wife, Usha, does all the talking.

It's sprinkled with photos of Vance as a boy, with his beloved Mamaw (even a fleeting glimpse of actress Glenn Close playing Mamaw in the film version of Hillbilly Elegy), a photo of him as a Marine and images of him playing with one of the Vances' three young children.

"Our family’s story is an Ohio story," Usha says. “My husband, J.D., grew up in Middletown and things weren’t easy. His mom struggled with addiction, and his dad wasn’t there.

“But J.D. was lucky. He was raised by his loving grandmother, and he served his country as a Marine in Iraq. He’s an incredible father, and he’s my best friend. He wants for Ohio what Ohio gave him — a fighting chance.”

It's a biographical piece that covers a lot of territory, including addressing the long-standing criticism that Vance, a successful venture capitalist who spent most of his adult life living and working in northern California, is a carpet-bagger who came to Ohio only to run for the Senate.

And it shows him as a loving father and husband, in a happy marriage.

David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said the ad has a "cookie cutter" quality to it and is a "classic soft biographical ad narrated by someone in the candidate's life who is more likeable than the candidate himself."

"I think the ad reflects the dawning awareness of Republicans that very few Ohioans know much about J.D. Vance; and many of those who do know him don't much like him," Niven said. "And certainly the party is facing a continued erosion of support among women."

Vance told me the NRSC ad — which has been omni-present between innings breaks on Reds' TV broadcasts — was conceived long before the uproar over his comments about spouses in abusive relationships.

"The main thing we are trying to do is introduce J.D. Vance to people who don’t know much about me," Vance said. "During the primary, I never really got an opportunity to tell my story."

Vance believes his story is a compelling one that people can relate to.

But many voters — particularly women voters — are going to find it difficult, if not impossible, to get over the hump of his off-hand remarks in a California high school last fall. Sweet images of him playing with one of his kids may not cut it.

J.D. Vance is going to own those remarks from now through Nov. 8. They will not go away.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.