According to Vance, the Republican establishment came after him hard. Regardless, Vance won the primary, making him the Republican party candidate for an Ohio Senate seat. And so, he is being considered a proof of concept.
Alexandria, VA: On 3 May, 37-year-old J.D. Vance went from being one of a crowded field of candidates in the Ohio Republican Senate primary race to being a proof of concept. That needs some explaining.
In the United States, two chambers, the House of Representatives (HR) and the Senate, make up the Congress, the government’s legislative branch. The 435 House seats are proportionately distributed throughout the 50 states. They are all up for election every two years. Each of the 50 states also elects two Senators for six-year terms. The President, who heads the executive branch of government, is elected every four years.
So, every two years, the whole House and a third of the Senate are up for election. The elections that are held in the years midway between Presidential election years are called, not surprisingly, midterm elections.
At the moment, both the House and the Senate (and the presidency) are controlled by Democrats. That’s important, because control means not only more legislative/budgetary power, but more power over a range of other activities, including hearings and impeachments.
Midterm elections can be mundane elections that don’t change control of the House or the Senate. Or they can be very important because there is a chance that the party in minority before the midterms wins enough new seats to take control of the House and/or Senate and so change the agenda of governance.
The midterms due in November 2022 are the important kind. There is more than a chance that control may change. And this year it’s not just about Democrats versus Republicans, it’s about what kind of Democrats and what kind of Republicans.
Which is why I’d like to introduce you to J.D. Vance. But first we need a bit more American Civics 101.
The process of selecting who will represent the Democrats, Republicans, or other parties in elections can vary from state to state. Generally speaking, there is a “primary” held a few months before the election to select the party’s candidate. Usually the incumbent runs effectively unopposed for their party’s nomination so, unless the incumbent isn’t running, the primary is generally about selecting the challenger.
That is, unless a large enough proportion of that party’s electorate doesn’t think the incumbent represents them, in which case they could face a serious primary challenge.
That is happening now in the Republican party. For example, Representative Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is getting “primaried” in Wyoming after she fell out with a substantial part of the party in the state over her attacks on Donald Trump while he was President. Trump will even be holding a rally for Cheney’s most serious primary competitor, Harriet Hageman. In that seat, whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win the midterm election.
What all this means is that, given there is a chance Republicans will win new seats, and that the Republican party itself is changing, the primaries are extremely important. In fact in some districts, the primary is really where the 2022 midterm is being decided. And given that this year the midterms may change the legislature at a time of economic crisis, social unrest, and near war, it’s worth taking a look to see what is going on.
And so, finally, let me introduce you to J.D. Vance. Vance wrote about his difficult childhood growing up in an America where jobs were shipped overseas and drug addiction was rampant in his best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).
He joined the Marines, got a law degree, worked in investment and, when the Republican Senator for Ohio announced he was retiring, announced his primary run to be the next Republican candidate. Which is where it got interesting.
Vance campaigned with positions that put him at odds with what pollster Rich Barisdescribes as “the stiff upper lip, pinky in the air, croissant eating, sweater vest wearing, Mitt Romney Republican…. The establishment and ‘polite losers’ who are managing the decline”. For example, at the debate, Vance was the only one of the five Republican primary candidates to come out against a no-fly zone for Ukraine.
Turns out, that’s a pretty popular position. Not only was Vance endorsed by Donald Trump, Trump’s son, Don Jr., campaigned for him. At one event Don said, “It’s not going to be the establishment sending their kids to go die in Russia over Ukraine, arguably an equal—if not rated more—corrupt country than Russia… Big Pharma’s been at the trough for two years—it’s Big War’s turn again.”
According to Vance, the Republican establishment came after him hard. Veteran Republican political operative “Karl Rove spent a lot of money, he spent a lot of op-eds criticizing my candidacy, he was even calling my donors after Trump endorsed me and encouraging them to drop my campaign….In a lot of ways, what this revealed, is that you do have some very corrupt political consultants in the Republican Party who despise their own voters.”
Regardless, Vance won the primary, making him the Republican party candidate for an Ohio Senate seat. And so, he is being considered a proof of concept.
What is the concept? Well, for that we have to go back to early 2021. Biden became President, January 6-ers were being rounded up, Covid lockdowns were in full swing, and many were scared and confused.
At the end of February, a bellwether event was held, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). While not affiliated with the Republican party, it is a gathering of conservatives, many of whom vote Republican. But, in the post-Trump era, the question was, what sort of Republican would they vote for?
CPAC 2021 was where Trump gave his first speech after leaving office. None of the Republicans who voted for his impeachment spoke, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—considered by many in this crowd a RINO (Republican In Name Only)—wasreportedlynot even invited.
The tone was of the event was defiant, and somewhat defensive. Just holding an in-person large gathering at the time was considered a statement.
In the meantime, at some of the side events, and in the display hall, something deeper was happening. There was a strong sense that the Republican party, along with a whole other range of “establishment” institutions, could no longer be trusted. And there was a grudging appreciation for what was seen as an effective and brutal ground game by the Democrats.
There were discussions about grassroots movements around election integrity, school boards, city councils. New organizations likeLook Ahead Americaexplained their plans and called for volunteers. By the time of CPAC 2022 a year later, a range of these new or renewed organizations were in full swing and literally on display at the event.
Sometimes called America First, the New Right or, recently by Biden, Ultra MAGA, it is inaccurate, and counter-productive, to lump them under one tagline. Very broadly speaking, many are motivated by what they consider conservative values of individual responsibility, community mindedness, small government, and fiscal responsibility. There is a distrust of “three-letter agencies” (especially the FBI), government overreach and the mainstream media (if the average Indian distrusts Western media, you should hear what the people at CPAC have to say about it). They are very, very concerned about the rise in the cost of living.
In terms of foreign affairs, they tend to consider China the greatest threat, and have a generally non-interventionist foreign policy—with one common line currently being “we should secure our borders before we secure Ukraine’s”.
An interesting evolution is that, while there is a general great respect for Trump (one of the popular handouts at this year’s CPAC was a pin that read “Trump was right”), and some call them “Trumplicans”, this is not a complacent vote bloc.
A Trump endorsement helps a candidate, if it’s the right candidate. It helped J.D. Vance, because the electorate believed in him, and they believed he believed in them. Meanwhile, DrMehmet Oz, who was also endorsed by Trump in his primary run to represent the Republican party in the Pennsylvania Senate elections, was booedat the same rally where Trump was cheered. Those voters didn’t just take Trump’s word for it, they did their own research and came to the conclusion that Oz’s political positions don’t align with theirs, and so they won’t vote for him.
And how they did that research is also interesting. In the same way these legions of small grassroots conservative movements are springing up like dragon’s teeth all over America, there has been a major growth in interest in a wide range of online news and commentary sources, some of which are cross-fertilizing talent pools and customer bases, to becomes serious new media houses.
The day after Vance won the primary, conservative news and opinion platform Human Eventsacquired online news site The Post Millennial. This will bring together some of the most influential people in this new ground game, including Jack Posobiec, Libby Emmons, Charlie Kirk and Andy Ngo. If you haven’t heard of them, give it time, you will.
The man who drove the acquisition, Jeff Webb, said: “This is a new media powerhouse that will constructively influence the political dialogue in this country while simultaneously challenging some of the largest, most-established publications. We are positioned to grow, and to grow fast.”
As is the related political movement, the one that made Vance possible.
So, in the end, what concept did the Vance win prove? That the conservative ground game is now wide and deep enough to win a Republican primary just with conservative voters and against the will of Republican establishment. The question is, will this replicate?
Other primary challengers to watch are Harriet Hageman, Joe Kent, Alex Gray, Antony Sabattini and Blake Masters. And there are many more. If enough of them get through the primaries, the Republicans will be a very different kind of party and the midterms will be a very different kind of race. And if they win their seats, the United States will be a very different kind of country.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.