“Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance is reportedly considering a run for U.S. Senate following outreach by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, multiple news outlets have reported in the last 72 hours.
But while this is being treated as great news by some conservatives– and while political debate in this country could arguably benefit from a heavy infusion of the insight and sympathy for the white working class that Vance personally offers– should the author who has achieved near rock-star status in political intellectual circles actually enter the race, he should expect a lot of his own words and experiences to be thrown back at him in a shining example of exactly why not-born-and-bred politician types rarely get into, or succeed, in American politics.
If Vance enters the race, he will first face off against Rep. Jim Renacci, who was previously running for Ohio Governor but recently switched to the Senate race.
Renacci has been in Congress since 2011, and while his parents were a railroad worker and a nurse, respectively, he comes from a wealthy business background.
Presumably, part of the thinking on the part of would-be recruiters of Vance is that his status as something other than a wealthy businessman, and someone with demonstrated sympathy for the plight of the white working class, would provide an edge over Renacci in a primary.
These traits are also assumed to offer him an advantage should he make it out of the primary and go on to face Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio.
Brown is in the unenviable position of running as a Democrat in a state won easily by President Trump.
However, he is also widely regarded as a skilled politician himself where engagement with the white working class and blue collar, union member voters are concerned.
That arguably enhances the rationale for a candidate like Vance running, but it also doubles the prospect of some of Vance’s own words and his arguable (now) membership of the “elite” being thrown back in his face and used to undercut what looks on its face like a potentially pretty solid candidacy.
First, there is the issue of Vance’s biography, coupled with the trends that he describes. If he’s correct in his assertion, made in this fairly lengthy interview with The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher in mid-2016, that “nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become ‘too big for their britches’,'” Vance should probably expect his attendance of Yale to be made an issue in a campaign– and not in a good way.
One of Vance’s core theories is that Trump voters– people he would presumably need to bag a ton of, and who recruiters think he can win over– viscerally hate the country’s “elites.” While “elite” may mean different things to different people, odds are that “Yale graduate” ticks an initial, definitional box for a lot of white working class voters in Ohio.
Then, there is also the matter of his criticism of his own “tribe,” which may or may not be well-received.
In the same interview, Vance pins failure of some white working-class people to advance socio-economically on reverse snobbery within that section of society, saying “it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself, and let’s face it: when you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”
True though this undoubtedly is, it also sounds like the kind of statement that could easily be invoked negatively in a political campaign.
So too could Vance’s comments about “learned helplessness as a political value,” something he clearly disdains, but also considers dominant in the political system.
If Vance is right that “we’re no longer a country that believes in human agency,” a notion that jibes almost exactly with a lot of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail– which ultimately sold in Ohio– that’s a potential political problem for Vance. He exhibits a willingness to tell some people who may not want to hear it and prove ultimately unwilling to support him for it, that yeah, some of their plight actually is their fault. It takes a pretty smooth messenger to pull that kind of thing off.
Vance has also been sharply critical of Donald Trump, and made comments that may not play well with the GOP donor class.
In the same interview, Vance calls Trump out for “spen[ding] way too much time appealing to people’s fears, and he offered zero substance for how to improve their lives.” Vance adds:
My biggest fear with Trump is that, because of the failures of the Republican and Democratic elites, the bar for the white working class is too low. They’re willing to listen to Trump about rapist immigrants and banning all Muslims because other parts of his message are clearly legitimate. A lot of people think Trump is just the first to appeal to the racism and xenophobia that were already there, but I think he’s making the problem worse.
The other big problem I have with Trump is that he has dragged down our entire political conversation. It’s not just that he inflames the tribalism of the Right; it’s that he encourages the worst impulses of the Left.
This sounds a bit like some of the criticisms of Trump that one hears from #nevertrumpers– and therefore, like the kind of thing that might inflame the man who sits as head of the GOP, whether anyone likes it or not. That has tended to be a disadvantage, so far, to Republicans running in contested primaries– and in the Ohio Senate race, it’s worth noting that Renacci has explicitly said his goal is to “protect… Trump’s agenda.” Renacci reportedly only switched to the Senate race after consultation with Trump’s team, who seem to be big fans.
Vance also comments in that American Conservative interview that “from the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.”
Honest though this may be, the reality is a lot of the guys who could be asked to cut checks to his potential future campaign are the factory owners, not the guys who got fired. The former category has the money to propel a race in a state with lots of media markets like Ohio; the latter does not.
Whether or not Vance enters the race, Renacci does not currently have a clean shot at taking on Brown in November. Mike Gibbons, a banker from Cleveland who has pledged to spend $5 million of his own cash, entered the race months back.
Beating Brown will be a top priority for Republicans in any event, since he is considered to have presidential ambitions, and is viewed by some Republican consultants as one of a handful of candidates who could beat President Trump in 2020.