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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: Which J.D. Vance will show up in the Senate?

j.d. vance
Jeff Dean
/
AP
Then-Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks with reporters outside of a polling location in Cincinnati, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

J.D. Vance is going to be the new junior senator from the state of Ohio, but he will take office as a mystery to many.

And that is something new in Ohio politics. Ohio voters have always elected U.S. senators who had a distinct public persona, a political brand that people could easily identify. And they haven't particularly cared whether the senators were Republicans or Democrats.

Vance, a Middletown native, won fair and square, with 53% of the unofficial vote count, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who could tell you which J.D. Vance will show up on Capitol Hill in January.

Will it be the best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family that came up from eastern Kentucky to settle in Middletown — a book that, for a time, made him the darling of East Coast liberal elites who lionized him for telling the story of those poor folks in fly-over country?

That Vance was the toast of cocktail parties from Nob Hill in San Francisco to the Upper East Side of New York, where the wealthy swooned over his tales of hard scrabble life in a small town in Ohio. Or was it Iowa. Doesn't matter. Poor, poor people.

Or was it the Vance who shuffled off to California's Silicon Valley as soon as he could escape the stinky, rough-and-tumble of Middletown? There, he became a wealthy man as a venture capitalist, finding an ally in the billionaire Peter Thiel, who made his fortune in "big tech" — the same "big tech" that Vance denounced as evil in his Senate campaign.

That Vance — the 2016 Vance who was on the talk show circuit hawking his book — was four-square against Donald Trump, calling him an "idiot," "reprehensible" and "noxious." Vance called him every name but "mister."

But then another Vance emerged, the one who pulled up stakes in San Francisco and returned to Ohio, buying a home and starting a business in Cincinnati. That Vance was plotting his run for the Senate; and, in 2021, jumped into a crowded primary field.

Suddenly he was transformed into a true believer in Trump, explaining his Road-to-Damascus conversion on a rather flimsy argument — that he had seen what a godsend former President Trump had been to the working poor he wrote about in his book, and how he had given them hope.

vance trump
Michael Conroy
/
AP
Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance speaks as former President Donald Trump listens at a campaign rally at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio.

Well, the working poor might have gotten hope, but what Vance got was a Trump endorsement and $15 million from Thiel, a Trump ally, which was enough to lift him to the top of a seven-candidate field to win the primary with 32% of the vote.

Then, a few days after he became Ohio's senator-elect, he spoke to the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau's Jo Ingles and struck a decidedly more moderate tone about how he would approach his term.

He said he’s willing to work with Ohio’s senior U. S. Senator Sherrod Brown, as well as other Democrats.

"I plan to work with anybody with whom I can get things done," he said. "I think certainly on things like trade policy and bringing manufacturing jobs back to Ohio, Sherrod could be a good ally. On energy policy, hopefully Joe Manchin could be a good ally. So the way I think about it is the people of Ohio sent me to the United States Senate to do a job and I'll work with whoever I have to to get things done."

If there has ever been anyone in Ohio politics who fit the description of shapeshifter, it is J.D. Vance.

Is there another Vance persona out there, waiting to emerge from its cocoon once he takes office? All we can go on is what he has said so far.

Connecting the dots

This is an odd situation for Ohio. Having a new senator is rarely like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates — you pretty much always know what you are going to get.

Consider some of Ohio's senators from the past 50 years or so:

Robert Taft Jr. (1971-1976): Solid conservative Republican; the apple didn't fall far from the tree. His father, Robert A. Taft, was solidly in the right wing of the party — in fact, he was known as "Mr. Republican."

Howard Metzenbaum (1974, 1976-1993): The Cleveland Democrat was a stubborn, rock-solid populist who took on the conservatives in Congress and big business in general his entire career. He was, some say, "the last angry liberal."

George Voinovich (1998-2011): This Republican was universally known in Ohio by the time he reached the Senate. He had been Cleveland's mayor, lifting that city out of financial disaster and going on to be one of the most popular two-term governors ever. Voinovich had a reputation as having a pragmatic, hands-on style — the kind of guy who, if you asked him what time it was, would tell you how to build a watch.

Sherrod Brown (2007-present): In many ways a modern version of Metzenbaum, a unabashed liberal and populist who sides with working people.

Rob Portman (2011-present): Conservative, but pragmatic. A senator willing to work across the aisle.

What will Vance do?

Here's an early clue: Vance appointed Jacob Reses to be his chief of staff. Reses was senior policy advisor to Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Hawley, since the election, has been all over Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, blaming him for the Republicans not being able to win back control of the Senate.

Hawley, in fact, wants to put McConnell to pasture with a new leader.

"That appointment speaks volumes,'' said David B. Cohen, political science professor at the University of Akron. "One of his first appointments is a former employee of Josh Hawley, an unapologetic religious conservative and Trump supporter.

"I think it shows that J.D. intends to be more of a show horse who will take up the mantle of Trump in the Senate,'' Cohen said.

Vance has left a number of dots to connect that make it clear that his loyalty is to Trump and not McConnell — despite the fact that McConnell saw to it that the Senate Leadership Fund spent $32 million in Ohio tearing up Vance's Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan.

Many Republicans are blaming Trump's interference for the disaster that their "red wave" election turned out to be, but Trump has been working overtime to try to shift the blame to McConnell.

In an op-ed column Vance wrote this week for The American Conservative magazine, the senator-elect from Ohio told fellow Republicans to back off blaming Trump.

"Our party has one major asset, contra conventional wisdom, to rally these voters: President Donald Trump," Vance wrote. "Now, more than ever, our party needs President Trump’s leadership to turn these voters out and suffers for his absence from the stage."

It seems that the message Vance was sending was for McConnell: $32 million doesn't buy what it used to.

It seems the Trump-loving J.D. is still in effect. Until it isn't. Never know with shapeshifters.

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.