J. D. Vance (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Out of ideas, the GOP is wooing "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance for a Senate run

Looking to unseat Sherrod Brown in Ohio, the Republicans are courting the controversial author


Gabriel Bell
January 9, 2018 5:23PM (UTC)

A report published on Politico Monday night claims that Republican operatives are talking to J.D. Vance, the author of the bestselling book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis," about a possible Senate run in Ohio later this year.

These reported conversations follow the departure of early GOP candidate Josh Mandel, who announced he was leaving the race due to his wife's flagging health last week.

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Presumably, the 33-year-old Vance, a political virgin, would be facing current two-term Sen. Sherrod Brown in the November election, should he become a candidate. Brown, a vocal liberal in a state that often splits — a state that President Donald Trump carried with 51.3 percent of the vote — defended his seat against Mandel in 2012, winning by a healthy six-point margin.

Politico claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had spoken to Vance directly and has "told associates that he would prioritize the race if Vance jumps in." However, Politico also reported that "establishment Republicans have not settled on Vance as their favored candidate."

It has been hard to find a favored candidate for Brown's seat. Already Congressman Pat Tiberi and Ohio Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor have taken their names out of contention, leaving Representative Jim Renacci as the most experienced possible contender on the GOP side — though he is also considering running for governor. Politico reported that the most motivated possible candidate for the Republican slate was banker Mike Gibbons, a longtime GOP donor who has distanced himself from the policies and style of President Donald Trump repeatedly.

While a keen and popular supporter and translator of what he believes is the rural, non-urban American mindset, Vance himself has put himself at odds with the president through multiple statements. Before the election, Vance said that Trump "doesn't offer many solutions."

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Vance explained why he ultimately did not vote for the nominal leader of his party in an interview Cleveland.com: "[Trump] used rhetoric that's not in the best interest of the party or country. I happen to think that conservatism, when properly applied to the 21st century, could actually help everybody. And the message of Trump's campaign was obviously not super-appealing to Latino Americans, black Americans and so forth. That really bothered me."

In that same interview, he was asked if he had political ambitions, responding by saying: "I want to be part of the community before I think of doing something like that. But a lot of people have asked me in the past few months. Ten years from now, maybe."

Overall, Vance has collected more or less as much criticism as praise for "Hillbilly Elegy." Many -- Republicans and liberal columnists in particular — have trumpeted the book as an essential explainer for why working-class white Americans vote the way they do and as a vital compendium for their concerns, holding Vance himself as a canny prophet and philosopher of the Trump wave (despite the fact that he himself opposes Trump).

Critics, however, have noted Vance's dismissal of key factors operating across the communities he describes — racism and embedded privilege in particular. His reliance on the questionable narrative of the self-starting, self-reliant, bootstrapping American success story also has its detractors.

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In March of last year, Jared Yates Sexton wrote in Salon, "it would be hard to understate what role Vance has played in reinvigorating the conservative bootstraps narrative for a new generation and, thus, emboldening Republican ideology." No wonder McConnell, the often disingenuous steward of that ideology, is reaching to him to help win Brown's seat.


Gabriel Bell

Gabriel Bell is Salon's Deputy Culture Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @GabrielJBell

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