JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author of Hillbilly Elegy, won the Republican Senate primary in Ohio on Tuesday 3 May. Vance beat Josh Mandel, former Ohio state treasurer, Mike Gibbons, an investment banker, and Matt Dolan, an attorney and state senator. Though he was behind in the polls until only recently, Vance did manage to achieve victory, although, when the Associated Press called it for him, he had secured just over 30 per cent of the vote. He will face the Democrat Tim Ryan in the November mid-term elections.
Vance, 37, did not do this by being a good candidate. Though he came to prominence with his memoir on the struggles of the white working-class, he was not particularly convincing as an Ohio everyman. He came off as stilted in his advertisements. His Twitter account provided frequent fodder for his opponents. His harsh criticism of Donald Trump from 2016 came back to haunt him. He did, however, have two things that helped to get him across the finish line.
The first was the support of Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal and Palantir, who has poured millions into Vance’s campaign. Thiel has also thrown his support behind Blake Masters, who is running to be the Republican nominee for an Arizona Senate seat; that primary will take place in August. Whether Thiel is simply supporting people with whom he already has relationships or trying to exert ideological influence has been the subject of much debate. But Thiel’s support for Vance is not his first foray into politics. In 2016 he donated $1m to Donald Trump’s campaign.
That brings us to the other factor behind Vance’s success: Trump. Though Vance was highly critical of Trump in 2016, he later flipped, wholeheartedly embracing the “Make America Great Again” and “America First” ethos. And it was Vance — not Mandel, who was early to board the Trump train — who won the former president’s highly coveted endorsement (and, following the endorsement, an additional $3.5m from Thiel).
Before Trump’s show of support Vance was not polling at the head of the pack. Afterwards he pulled ahead and went into the election with a slim lead. Trump, at a rally the weekend before the election, did refer to Vance as “JD Mandel”, and said of the Republican candidates, “I actually like all of them”. Yet even a half-hearted Trump endorsement seemed to be enough to see Vance through.
“Like some others, JD Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades,” Trump said in his statement, which he released in mid-April. “He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race.”
That’s not to say that Thiel’s backing was irrelevant. Given Trump’s pre-existing relationship with Thiel, it surely played at least some role in the former president’s decision to endorse Vance. Yet it’s telling that Thiel’s support alone was not enough to push Vance to the front of the line. Trump’s endorsement was.
Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. On 6 January 2021 he summoned his supporters to Washington DC, where they tried to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results. Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested that they have evidence that Trump was trying to stay in office illegally. Even today, Trump insists he won an election that all evidence shows he lost.
And he is still, bar none, the most important, influential person in the Republican Party. Vance won the primary, but this was Trump’s victory.