NEW LEXINGTON – Best-selling author and U.S. Senate hopeful J.D. Vance visited Perry County Wednesday, and spoke to The Logan Daily News and Perry County Tribune about his bid to win the Senate seat for Ohio that’s being vacated by Republican Rob Portman.
Vance is probably best known as the author of the much-praised, much-maligned 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which was made into a feature film by director Ron Howard last year. In his interview he addressed topics including how he differs from the large field of conservative, pro-Trump Republicans also seeking the seat; why his own views on Trump have changed; and whether his role as a venture capitalist could make it more difficult for him to function effectively as a legislator.
In January of this year, Portman announced he would not seek re-election in 2022. On the Republican side some 10 candidates have announced their campaigns for the seat, among the most notable former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, and car dealership owner Bernie Moreno, all staunch conservatives in the America First, pro-Trump mode.
How does Vance distinguish himself from a field in which the candidates are saying similar things on similar issues, including immigration and “America First” economic policy?
“I guess that the first thing is, I have a willingness to do something on some of these problems,” Vance said. “I think that most conservatives are justifiably worried about big tech, and so a lot of conservative politicians talk about big tech. Most conservatives are worried about China, and a loss of our industrial base, and so a lot of conservative politicians talk about those issues. But I think I actually have a willingness and a substantive set of ideas for how to do something about those problems. I don’t want to just whine about the big tech companies; I actually want to break them up. And I don’t want to just complain about China stealing our manufacturing jobs; I want to impose punitive tariffs on the companies that are working with the Chinese. And so I think actually being willing to do something about those problems is my biggest distinguishing factor.”
Vance has faced criticism shading into ridicule for the way he has dramatically revised his earlier stated opinions on the former president, whom he described in 2016 as “unfit for our nation’s highest office,” and suggested was leading a significant portion of the white working class into a “more racist direction.” With the launch of his campaign, however, Vance apologized publicly for his earlier remarks about Trump, saying, “I regret being wrong about the guy.”
The New Republic, among other critical voices, savaged Vance’s turnaround on Trump, calling it “humiliating,” and suggesting it was a craven effort to “salvage his budding political career” by hopping on the Forever Trump bandwagon.
Vance on Wednesday addressed the issue frankly, repeating what he’s suggested before – that he now genuinely believes he misjudged Trump, and is honorable enough to admit he was wrong.
“I’ve been publicly supportive of the president for the past several years,” he said. “I think it’s been pretty obvious if you watch me since 2017, 2018, where my views on the President have come down. Certainly, like a lot of Republicans I was skeptical (earlier) that he would be able to deliver on core parts of his agenda, and I was skeptical that a lifelong Democrat would achieve something that I cared about achieving, but he proved me wrong. And I think it’s important when the facts change, and you’re proved wrong, to be honest about what you believe, but also about the fact that you’ve changed your mind and why, and I’ve been pretty open about that.”
He also suggested that the criticism he’s drawing is evidence that in a field heavy with pro-Trump candidates, he may be the one whose politics are closest to those of the former president.
“If you look at the organs of the national media that were most critical of Trump, and most critical of his agenda, they’re attacking me far more than any candidate, not just in this race but nationally,” he said. “And I think it sends an interesting signal that on the core substantive parts of Trump’s agenda, I actually think I’m more aligned with the President on things like trade, immigration, manufacturing and foreign policy than anybody else.”
Specifically on the issue of racial divisiveness, Vance said the facts have convinced him he made a mistake in seeing Trump as fostering racism.
“One of the things that I believed in 2016 is that Trump would do very poorly among Black and Latino voters,” Vance noted. “And what actually happened is that he did better with Black and Latino voters than any Republican in my lifetime. So I think that the question about whether Trump was racially divisive is best left to the actual vote tallies – and the vote tallies suggest, especially in 2020, that we had the least racialized electorate in our country’s recent history… I think it’s interesting that, for all the criticisms that Trump would alienate or inflame racial tension, he had a more diverse coalition than a lot of people in very recent history.”
On economic issues, Trump horrified some observers with his readiness to protect American industries, even at the cost of tearing at the structure of international trade agreements that had been touted as fostering “free trade” that would create more global prosperity. Vance suggested this view has simply been proved wrong by the actual track record of globalization.
“The elite consensus… was that free trade would be good for American workers and good for American consumers,” Vance said. “And what actually happened is that the parts of the country, especially in Ohio, that were most exposed to free trade, lost a lot of good jobs, and had a lot of social problems move in in response to that. You had lot of people getting addicted to drugs, you had breakdown of families, and that all happened because I think we allowed the Chinese to steal a lot of good American jobs… And those people who were pushing those policies made predictions about what would happen in the country, and those predictions were proven totally false.”
Vance acknowledged that there were people at the time – mostly on the left and in the labor movement, and mostly dismissed or ignored in mainstream media – who were in fact predicting that globalization would lead to job flight in core American industries. He noted, however, that hardcore conservative Pat Buchanan was making a similar assessment.
Another topic on which Vance has faced criticism is his portrayal of himself as someone working to address social problems in rural Ohio. A recent article on the Business Insider website, for instance, raises questions about Our Ohio Renewal, the nonprofit Vance started in 2017 to combat the opioid epidemic in the state, and Narya Capital, his venture-capital firm focused on startups in the Midwest. The nonprofit, the article suggested, has done little of substance. And the capital firm, it predicted, has the potential to create conflicts of interest for Vance if he’s elected to the Senate, “given his investments in everything from agriculture to defense.”
Asked whether Our Ohio Renewal is essentially on hold as he runs for office, Vance said, “It’s not on hold, it’s just small. I mean, we do a number of small grants and funds and projects here and there, but it’s not a large organization; we don’t have a huge budget. And so, yeah, obviously as the Senate campaign ramps up we’re doing less and less with the nonprofit and less and less of my business and focusing more on the Senate campaign. But I think we did some good stuff.”
As for potential conflicts from his business interests, Vance promised, “Obviously, if conflicts of interests do come up, then my first duty as a senator is to the people of Ohio, not to my own bottom line. And so while I don’t think conflicts of interest are going to come up I can say that if they do, I’m definitely going to be for our people and for our state.” He said he is still at work on preparing his candidate financial disclosure document, and hopes to submit it soon, possibly by mid-October.
On his chances in the Senate race, Vance said that polling he’s seen – his own campaign hasn’t done any – suggests that “we’ve got a lot of momentum. But you live by the polling and you die by the polling, and so I don’t want to hang my hat on it this early in the race. At the end of the day, the two things we have to do right now is, we have to engage a lot of voters, and we have to raise the resources to run the campaign in a smart way. And I think on both of those metrics we’re doing a really, really good job.”
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