Vance became a star last year upon the publication of his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The book recounts his childhood in a family plagued with divorce, drug abuse, poverty, and the breakdown of rural and suburban white working-class society. Instead of falling victim to the culture around him, he graduated high school, joined the Marines, served in Iraq, and then went on to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School.
As if Vance’s inspirational story and vivid storytelling weren’t enough, what made the book particularly special was his insight into problems confronting America’s heartland. Vance spent much of his childhood between the foothills of rural Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, an economically depressed steel-mill town. Vance’s story came as issues such as free trade and opioid addiction coalesced into a populist movement to elect Donald Trump.
“He resonates with everyday mom-and-pop voters. He taps into an undercurrent of Americana,” one Republican activist told BuzzFeed.
Vance’s life story “resonates in boardrooms, at community meetings, and in barbershops,” said a leading Ohio Republican businessman.
While the 32 year-old has never held elected office, Vance is considered a conservative. He did not support Trump in the 2016 election, citing both Trump’s divisive rhetoric and lack of effective policy that would address the problems of the nation’s poor. He voted for Evan McMullin, who ran as a conservative independent.
Efforts encouraging Vance to run for the U.S. Senate stem from dissatisfaction with candidate Josh Mandel, Ohio state Treasurer. Mandel already lost to Senator Sherrod Brown, the Democratic incumbent, in 2012. Mandel’s performance in that election was considered weak, as he ran three points behind Mitt Romney’s performance in the state.
Mandel also ran afoul of Ohio governor John Kasich during the 2016 presidential election. He was the only statewide official not to endorse Kasich. He endorsed Rubio early, and then Cruz after Rubio left the race. Ultimately, Mandel became a vocal supporter of Donald Trump.
While Mandel certainly has his weaknesses, he is still a respectable and viable candidate in a state that has swung rightward since Sherrod Brown won in 2012.
J.D. Vance, meanwhile, has established himself as a respected conservative voice on poverty, and the issues that plague rural America. He appears regularly on talk shows, has written featured articles for New York Times and National Review, and is cited in virtually every discussion on rural poverty and the struggles of the white working-class.
Since last year’s success of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance returned to Ohio and started a non-profit organization, Our Ohio Renewal, which focuses on combating opioid abuse and financing post-secondary education for lower class children.
In short, J.D. Vance occupies an influential place in our culture, particularly on crucial topics that conservatives often struggle to have a prominent voice. Vance isn’t just a rising star among conservatives, but in media, literary, and policy circles as well.
For now, there are dozens of conservatives in the Senate, and plenty of others who could challenge the already respectable Josh Mandel for the Republican nomination in Ohio. Politicians, even conservative ones, are a dime a dozen.
But a J.D. Vance is exceedingly rare. There may be a day when there will be a Senator Vance, and he would no doubt be a good one. Indeed, Senator Thomas Sowell or Senator William F. Buckley would’ve been excellent too.
For now, Vance’s efforts in the private sector are too indispensable to the conservative movement, and the country.