J.D. Vance Promises Voters That He Really Means It — This Time

JD Vance Campaigns Ahead Of Ohio Senate Primary Election - Credit: Getty Images
JD Vance Campaigns Ahead Of Ohio Senate Primary Election - Credit: Getty Images
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PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — It is just after noon on Friday at Mr. Gatti’s Pizza, and the campaign to elect J.D. Vance has realized they need to kill the Terminator.

The problem is that, next to the big backdrop that says “J.D. VANCE” on it, there is a broken sliding door that leads to Mr. Gatti’s honestly pretty impressive arcade. The arcade has pop-a-shot, a cool Jurassic Park machine that you sit inside, and, crucially, a giant TERMINATOR SALVATION game with two surprisingly realistic plastic M4 rifles. And that machine is just absolutely blasting action-movie orchestra BWAAAAs and gunfire sounds right through that broken door and into the room where Vance himself is about to give his stump speech.

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Nobody is actually playing Terminator Salvation, of course. Mr. Gatti’s is pretty quiet, and Vance isn’t there yet, which is too bad because I sort of wanted to challenge him to pop-a-shot. Vance’s team is busy setting up chairs and with the Terminator, which they defeat easily, flagging down a manager who unplugs the game, as well as a few others near the broken door, and that is that. The BWAAs and gunshots stop. The field has been cleared for J.D. Vance. Nothing can stop him now, except maybe J.D. Vance.

See, the Vance campaign has it all. They have the endorsement of Donald Trump. They have fresh-faced staffers with degrees from good midwestern schools and D.C. resumes, they have custom “J.D. Vance for Ohio” fleeces, they have 3.5 million of Peter Theil’s dollars, they have the big fancy pop-up backdrop thing that says “J.D. VANCE” on it. The question now is whether or not that is going to be enough. Vance’s task is simple: he needs to convince Ohio’s GOP primary voters that there is no zeal like that of a convert, and that only he can channel the God of MAGA well enough to save Ohio from its lurking fate, despite his past years of heresy.

His current version — call it the J.D. 1000 — is a right-wing populist and MAGA acolyte. But back in 2016, the J.D. 800 was a venture capitalist who rubbed elite elbows as he condemned the Donald by suggesting he could be an “American Hitler.”

Even before he got to Gatti’s Pizza, Vance faced the big question at a Friday morning town. His main opponent, former State Treasurer Josh Mandel, is also running on the gospel of MAGA. “How are you going to counter his “America First” with your “America First,” a woman asks.

“Well, mine is real and his is fake,” Vance says.

Real or fake, what both Vance and Mandel are selling is an ideology that fuses a deeply bigoted approach to social issues, a zealous xenophobia, a rage at modernity, and a growing belief that Trump’s Republican Party has the exclusive right to set policy in America — election results be damned. On a recent podcast chronicled by Vanity Fair, Vance fantasized about a 2024 scenario in which Trump takes power, dispenses with the rule of law, and refuses to follow the rulings of the Supreme Court. “I think that what Trump should do, if I was giving him one piece of advice: Fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people,” Vance said.

Even a decade ago, it would have been a disqualifying statement for a serious Senate candidate. And it still should be, but, in today’s Republican Party, a belief that democracy is only worth having if Trump gets to control it is squarely within the mainstream.

But until now, it didn’t seem that Republican voters believe Vance’s promises to be every bit as awful as Trump, if not more so. The most recent impartial polling, conducted before Trump’s endorsement, had Vance trailing frontrunner Josh Mandel by five points. Polling conducted by Thiel’s pro-Vance Protect Ohio Values PAC now shows Vance seven points ahead. The Trump bump will help — Vance is scheduled to speak at Trump’s rally in Columbus tonight — but, absent impartial polling, it’s hard to tell whether the man who has it all has managed to convince voters that he’s legit.

Credit: Jack Crosbie
Credit: Jack Crosbie

Jack Crosbie

It’s not that Vance isn’t confident. He is. But on the stump, he speaks like a lawyer (which he is) making opening arguments to a case: ramming through his points in a torrent of words; or like a venture capitalist (which he is), steamrollering through prepared remarks before anyone has time to catch up and ask him where the money came from. J.D. Vance does not give any room for applause lines, which means he doesn’t really get much applause. The only aberration, really, was when the comedy duo The Good Liars interrupted Vance’s speech on Thursday night to loudly ask for a refund on his book and were quickly escorted away by Team Vance’s fresh-faced fleece guys. Vance works it into his speech in Portsmouth, coupled with an anecdote about hecklers at his town hall with Newsmax earlier in the week (he immediately noticed them because they were “double masked with blue or purple hair,” Vance says, which scores him a rare genuine laugh from the crowd.)

To be fair, the pickings are slim. Political rallies on a weekday in rural Ohio in mid-April are not exactly the hottest ticket event of the season (that’s the Trade Days swap meet 13 miles north of Portsmouth at the fairgrounds, where for $800 you can get either a purebred pug puppy, vaccine record included, or a Remington shotgun). Everywhere else, it’s Vance and a small group mostly comprised of retirees and small business owners who set their own hours. But one of the perks of having it (Thiel money) all is you can really pound the pavement — Vance has done over 60 events on his “NO BS” tour. You can also grease some palms (literally) — the crowd in Portsmouth is small enough that Team Vance puts all their meals at Mr. Gatti’s pizza buffet on its tab.

Free food or not, Vance’s crowds seem to be leaving happy. Like his primary opponent Josh Mandel, Vance is saying what they want to hear, no matter how brusquely he says it. Vance leans on the Southern Border (which, we must remember, is 1,185 miles from Cincinnati as the crow flies) more than Mandel’s School Gender Wars. But he still manages to play up his key issue as a Threat to America’s Children, railing about the danger of kids growing up around drug cartels and dropping a vague anecdote about young boys being sex trafficked to Ohio. (This may be some riff on the 2016 Trillium farms case, where six teens from Guatemala were lured to Ohio with the promises of schooling and then forced to work on an egg farm, but anyway, all that is beside the point. On the 2022 campaign trail in our post-fact, one stump speech story is just as true as any other.)

“In my gut I feel like the man’s sincere,” says Tim Knauff, owner of the Gatti’s franchise in Portsmouth. “He’s been down here twice already. Some of the others haven’t even been. I pray that if he is elected he’ll keep his word.”

Credit: Jack Crosbie
Credit: Jack Crosbie

Jack Crosbie

And that, for J.D. Vance, is going to be the real test. In order to win the primary, J.D. Vance has to convince Ohio’s voters that he is the Trump-loving MAGA-outsider they’ve always wanted. Historically, he’s pretty good at this: for several years, he had basically every liberal in America convinced he was their moral ambassador to the middle-American masses. In a lengthy 2016 piece that Vance wrote in the Guardian, he wrote extensively anguish of life in working-class America and elite contempt for working-lcass whites — a theme he continues to hit today. But the other part of his message was that Trump was not the answer. “Trump’s entire candidacy consists of pointing the finger at someone else,” he wrote.

Today, Vance is the one pointing the finger, saying he was “glad to be wrong” about Donald Trump in 2016 —and playing it well enough to convince the man himself (though the fact that he and Trump share an astronomically wealthy benefactor in Thiel probably didn’t hurt). V.C. Vance’s pitch is slick enough that it just might sell.

“If he’s legit, he’ll be the best Senator in D.C.,” says Ben Kennedy, an 18-year-old who came to see Vance in Loveland on Friday with his dad, Mike. “We’ll find out in a year from now,” he remarks.

They don’t like Mandel because he’s a career politician, and they don’t have much faith in those. “I’ve been burned before,” Mike adds.

Vance has changed before, and there’s an argument to be made that, even if he’s not held office before, he’s been building a career in politics for years. After all, he’s lived in the world of rhetoric and TV spots for years, swapping a book tour and CNN slots for the campaign trail and Newsmax. On the trail, Vance is a big game hunter. He tells everyone about all the RINOs he’ll go after: Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, you name it. That’s what the people want to hear.

If he’s elected, Vance will actually have to do stuff. At one event a man asks him if he will commit to not voting for McConnell as Senate Majority leader; Vance replies that it depends on who runs against him. If it’s Romney, say, well then he’ll stick with Mitch. The crowd laughs. Some RINOs are bigger than others.

But it’s still an interesting dilemma. Vance isn’t stupid — he surely understands that McConnell is the best strategist the GOP has had in decades, and that defying him in the Senate is a great way to have a short career, which is clearly not the point. But Vance also understands that Senators get six whole years once they’re in. That’s more than enough time to become somebody completely different all over again.

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