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The Next Senator from Ohio: J.D. Vance

Vance's comfortable victory in the Republican primary demonstrates how much, thankfully, the party has been remade by Donald Trump.
Former President Trump Holds Rally In Ohio Ahead Of State's Primary

As sad dad rock band The National put it in 2010 Highviolet highlight “Bloodbuzz Ohio”:

I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe
I never thought about love when I thought about home
I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe
The floors are falling out from everybody I know

That’s the song I associate with long drives on the northern Ohio turnpike between Pittsburgh and Indiana, passing Youngstown and, a suburban village around a factory, Lordstown. Lordstown, as I picture it in my mind as seen from years of road trips between D.C. and Michigan, proudly proclaimed itself the Home of the (Chevy) Cruze. Before that it built Impalas and Pontiac Firebirds, and stood a monument to American industry just off the highway for everyone to admire. It’s closed now, of course, killed in 2019. 

I can’t pretend to love Ohio; I’m not from there. Like it is for too many people working in the nation’s capital, for me it has always been a place to get through going somewhere else. The traffic cops act like there are quotas to fill. Like it seems to be for too many Ohio natives I know here on the coasts, it has mostly existed in my mind as a place to get out of. But some people do go home, to Ohio, as James Pogue detailed for the magazine last year, despite its hollowed out industry and social ills; their heart is in and for the heartland. 

The next senator from Ohio will be J.D. Vance. Vance won the state’s Republican senate primary last night, beating both dorky Josh Mandel and Matt Dolan by about 9 percent. This year promises a red wave nationally, and though I can’t pretend ungodly amounts of money won’t have to be spent to make sure Vance beats lost-to-Sleepy-Joe Rep. Tim Ryan come the general election in November, the vibe has shifted. Vance received Donald Trump’s endorsement a few weeks ago, and many observers saw the Ohio contest as a test case of the former president’s power as kingmaker. Count this win as one of the more telling facts of the case, then, as the country’s detectives seek to solve the mystery of the GOP’s Trump-sparked realignment.

Christopher Caldwell summarized what we can learn from Vance and Ohio well in a recent essay for the New York Times. Donald Trump spoke to Ohio, and Ohioans heard him. He understood they were angry, and why. In particular, they had been taken for granted and forgotten in the aftermath of NAFTA. The factories closed. The borders opened. Wages stagnated. Drugs proliferated. What noises they made in protest were ignored or dismissed as racist or entitled. Nobody seemed to care, except to suggest perhaps they deserved it. Then came Trump, and he gave them a voice.

The Ohio Senate primary, then, has been from the national perspective and probably even from the campaign strategy perspective about how, and why, Trump spoke so well for the people of Ohio. Every candidate has had to, in their own way, re-present whatever it was they think caused the Buckeyes to give their state to Trump by a little more than 8 percent in both 2016 and 2020. Caldwell writes, “The former state treasurer, Mr. Mandel, appears to have been guided by the idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That is, he saw in Donald Trump rhetorical bluntness for its own sake, impulses and instincts divorced from a unifying personality; Mandel is a party creature, really only shifting towards MAGA as much as the RNC has, so his campaign strategy seemed to be take the bluster, leave the man. Late-surging and self-funded Dolan seemed to think Trump something of a fluke, or at least far more a liability than an asset; the goal was to ignore him. Give voters uncomfortable with putting America first, whether in rhetoric or in practice, an out.

Meanwhile, Vance got the endorsement and the win by demonstrating to Ohio that a change of mind is not a change of heart. While a lot of the professional centrist fans of his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, likely feel some kind of indignation at his populist turn, they misunderstand the relationship of loyalty and practical wisdom in political life. Vance’s public record has shifted on Donald Trump, sure, but it never shifted on the core, that the people he grew up with, his people, his state, had been left sick by something broken and wrong in America. That Trump was the tribune they wanted, and that their picking him made them even worse and more undeserving in the eyes of a bipartisan leadership class that treated them as an afterthought, rightly made him reconsider his initial discomfort with the businessman from Queens. After all, it was not to certain tactics or ideological principles or party factions Vance considered himself to be loyal, it was to the hillbillies.

In a country of declining institutions, politics remains as it ever was: personal. When the gap between the few and the many broadens too much, or the interests of the party elite depart from the base, then a vacuum is created, abhorrent to nature, and a champion steps in to fill it. It was not cynicism that allowed a man who had railed against NAFTA and globalization and stupid wars abroad for years to win a presidential election by promising to put America and Americans first; there was a space left empty there for him to fill. It is not cynicism for a loyal son of Ohio, who has long mourned the pathologies of his people, to realize with anger that they have been as sheep without a shepherd, abandoned to the wolves.

What comfort does J.D. Vance gain running for the Senate in Ohio that he did not already have? In trading his role as court explainer of the white working class for being their tribune, he has already lost much and stands to lose more. But perhaps by putting Ohio first in war and first in peace, he can become first in the heart of Ohioans. And that is no small thing.

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