GOP foes see 'Hillbilly Elegy' author J.D. Vance as a threat

Apr. 22—If you lean Republican or voted for Donald Trump, then you may have gotten a cryptic text message last weekend about J.D. Vance.

The aim of the messages seems to be calling attention to the Hillbilly Elegy author's past remarks about the former president, now considered a behind-the-scenes kingmaker in future Ohio elections.

"Never Trumper JD Vance called Donald Trump an 'idiot'; And now he thinks he can represent Ohio in the US Senate????" read one, with a link to a Vance tweet from 2016, the same year he released his best-selling book.

"Never-Trumper JD Vance wants to represent us in the Senate but he'll just be another Mitt Romney," says another unsigned message. The texts appear to be from a super PAC backing one of the GOP candidates in the race.

Mr. Vance, the 36-year-old venture capitalist whose memoir chronicles growing up in the throes of family turmoil in Middletown, Ohio, hasn't officially launched a Senate bid in his home state, but his presence looms over the race as he weighs a run to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

Even some conservatives see him as a spoiler in a field without a frontrunner, and some interpret the text blitz as a sign GOP candidates fear that Mr. Vance's backstory and fame could pull him through the primary.

"He absolutely will be a threat to the other candidates who have already gotten into the race," said David B. Cohen a political science professor at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "This is going to be a pretty expensive, competitive, and probably pretty brutal Republican primary."

For a shot at winning the seat, Mr. Vance would have to emerge from a pack of far-right presenting candidates clinging to the promise of a Trump endorsement to clear a crowded primary field. His candidacy would test whether a writer and pundit often credited with explaining Mr. Trump's appeal to the white working-class in Middle America understands it well enough to fuel his own victory here.

Despite Mr. Vance having met with Mr. Trump recently at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the Republican field — if the recent text blasts are any indication — will try to skewer Mr. Vance over his past opposition to Mr. Trump, who's still a popular figure in Ohio after two blowout wins.

"No way in hell," said Bill Delaney, a former Republican State Central Committee member from Toledo, on potentially supporting Mr. Vance. "I've gotten a few messages about him and the answer is no way. What he's said about [Mr. Trump] is a nonstarter."

In recent weeks, Mr. Vance has peppered his Twitter feed with overtures to the right — tweets praising Fox News host Tucker Carlson and bashing woke culture and Big Tech censorship.

On Wednesday, the day after jurors delivered a guilty verdict in ex-cop Derek Chauvin's murder trial and Columbus police killed 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant, Mr. Vance tweeted, "It is apparently now racist to prevent someone from being stabbed," in response to a tweet from Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Mr. Vance traces his roots to eastern Kentucky but grew up in southwest Ohio. He describes in his book how the steadying influence of his grandmother helped him escape from under his mother's addictions and his hometown. He joined the Marines, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and launched a career in Silicon Valley.

Critics argue the "bootstraps" ethos he seems to espouse in Hillbilly Elegy isn't achievable for most in the lower class, and Mr. Vance has acknowledged as much.

"Stories like mine are less and less common today. The prospects of a kid growing up at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and rising to the top is less and less frequent," Mr. Vance told a group of northwest Ohio Republicans a few months after Mr. Trump's inauguration.

His tone on Mr. Trump had noticeably softened by then.

"I saw that there was a lot of frustration. And [Mr. Trump] obviously saw the same thing. I wrote a book about it. He ran a campaign on it," he said.

After living in California, Mr. Vance returned to Ohio in 2017 and by the next year was "seriously considering" a campaign against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. He ended up not running.

He said at the time that he returned to southwest Ohio, where he lives now with his wife and two children, to be closer to his family, and has since launched business and nonprofit ventures in the state.

Mr. Vance's political success may depend on whether voters perceive his return to his roots as genuine, and the degree to which his book and the Netflix adaption afford him name recognition and celebrity status.

"You have Trump who arrived on the scene in 2015, and despite the fact that he's a billionaire and lived his whole life with a Park Avenue mindset, he was able to connect with working class people," Mr. Cohen said. "I don't know if J.D. Vance can do that in Ohio. It remains to be seen."

A photo posted on Twitter this week showed Mr. Vance back in his hometown, posing with employees at Phillips Tube Group, a manufacturer of welded steel tubes.

"He didn't disappoint! There was a definite buzz and excitement around him as 'Middletown's son' and our local hometown celebrity," the company's communications vice president, Catherine Martin, said of his trip to the plant.

In his book, Mr. Vance connects the disappearance of jobs at factories to the social issues like poverty and opioid addiction in Appalachia and places like Middletown.

"It's all a very flimsy house of cards he's built into this emerging persona," said Elizabeth Catte, the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, a 2018 rebuttal to Hillbilly Elegy that argues Mr. Vance's book promotes stereotypes and fails to highlight the vitality of the region.

"Even beyond questions about his redneck credibility or Appalachian credibility, he's awash with this kind of phoniness that people pick up on," Ms. Catte said. "That can be good if you're trying to sell books, I guess, and go back and talk at Yale. But maybe not so much in politics where people do seem to think that characteristics like authenticity and relatability are important."

In 2020, Mr. Vance and a partner raised $93 million to start a Cincinnati-based venture capital firm, Narya Capital, to fund start-ups outside of Silicon Valley.

The same libertarian tech billionaire who helped fund that project, Peter Thiel, last month gave $10 million to Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC supporting Mr. Vance's political ambitions.

Mr. Vance wouldn't be the only Republican Senate hopeful with access to big money. Investment banker Mike Gibbons, luxury car dealer-turned-tech entrepreneur Bernie Moreno, and former state GOP chairman Jane Timken each have personal resources to self-fund at least a portion of their campaigns. Former state treasurer Josh Mandel has been sitting on a $4 million-plus war chest since his 2018 Senate bid.

If Mr. Vance were to make it past the primary, he might be competing against Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat with similar working-class roots — although Mr. Ryan, who hails from Trumbull County, was raised and still lives in one of the 32 eastern Ohio counties classified as Appalachian. Mr. Ryan hasn't launched a bid, but is expected to soon.

"I think he and Tim are going to appeal to the same kind of voters," said David Betras, a former Democratic chairman in Mahoning County who has been vocal in his frustration with his party in the Trump era. In 2020, Mr. Trump became the first Republican to win the traditionally Democratic county since Richard Nixon in 1972.

He said Mr. Vance is the Republican he'd least like to see in the race.

"We can't get killed in rural Ohio anymore. I mean, we're not going to win those rural counties, but you can't win Ohio just running in the three cities. It's a losing formula," he said.