MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — J.D. Vance entered a brewery with a small child in one arm and another squeezing his hand.
The crowd inside was a decent size for pre-beer-drinking hours. But unlike the other stops on Vance’s “No B.S. Tour” (an unfortunate name mocked ruthlessly online), many people there didn’t need to be convinced to vote for him in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary. As Vance made his way across the tasting room at FigLeaf Brewing Company, he was greeted by relatives who embraced him and scooped up his wandering children.
“I decided to bring the boys up here because, one, I knew there would be at least someone to take care of them, and two, I figured my wife can enjoy the break,” said Vance, who also has a newborn at home.
The stop on Saturday marked the “Hillbilly Elegy” author’s first time hosting a political event in his hometown since his July campaign launch at a steel tubing factory here.
The warm reception he enjoys in Middletown — the small southwest Ohio city thrust reluctantly into the spotlight as the setting for Vance’s memoir about growing up around poverty and addiction — isn’t what he can normally expect as the election approaches. He’s locked in a tight seven-way race for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Republican Rob Portman. In a state Trump carried twice, even Democrats privately concede that whoever wins the GOP nomination is favored to win the general election, making the primary especially cutthroat.
With big national name recognition from his book and its buzzed-about movie adaptation, Vance was expected to shake up the GOP field with star power and access to far-right activists and major donors. But with the primary less than four months away, he still hasn’t popped in the polls — a sign that maybe Vance isn’t able to speak for the white working class on the political stage the way he did in his book.
Rob Runge, a 57-year-old livestock farmer from Trenton, Ohio, told HuffPost he’s still trying to understand what separates Vance from the other candidates. When Runge asked Vance about it, Vance answered that he recognizes the “biggest problem in this country is not just bad policies from government, but the unholy alliance between the government and our biggest corporations.”
Runge said he likes Vance, but wasn’t entirely sold. He did like that Vance brought his family to the campaign stop.
“Are you going to ride the coattails of some other big Republican or conservative and just go along with it because it works?” he asked. “When somebody is fleshed out and three-dimensional, and they have real people in their lives and family, that makes a difference.”
The few polls that have been released publicly show former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, Vance’s primary rival as a right-wing online agitator, with a steady lead. But it’s still anyone’s race. Other candidates clamoring for oxygen include state Sen. Matt Dolan, investor Mike Gibbons, luxury car dealer Bernie Moreno, IT executive Mark Pukita, and former state GOP chair Jane Timken.
Depending on whom you ask in Ohio, Vance is either a hometown hero or a phony “conservative outsider” attacking the elite class of which he’s a member.
“Here is J.D. Vance, the Ivy League venture capitalist who has tried to reinvent himself as the people’s fighter against the elite. The ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author has devolved from his insightful memoir to social media rants,” wrote Max Potluri, a third-year student at Columbia Law School and an Ohio native, in an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Potluri argues that Vance’s contradictions, such as railing against Big Tech while running a campaign with the support of a super PAC financed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel — make it impossible to figure out what he really believes.
“Vance’s education and experience are impressive. But his rhetoric becomes bizarre in light of his background. It is hard to know what J.D. Vance truly believes in, and it is hard to trust him as a candidate,” Potluri wrote.
Vance’s stump speech only makes passing reference to the thing he’s best known for — the memoir that channeled his turbulent childhood in the post-industrial Midwest into a cultural touchstone at a time when the nation was trying to understand Trump’s appeal to white working-class Americans.
“If you read my book, or just know anyone in Middletown…” Vance said, using it as a launchpad to discuss how his family migrated from southeastern Kentucky coal country to southwest Ohio to work at steel plants whose eventual closing devastated the region.
“Are you going to ride the coattails of some other big Republican or conservative and just go along with it because it works?”
– Rob Runge, a farmer and local GOP official in southwest Ohio
Vance, now 37, was able to overcome his early surroundings, enlisting in the Marines, attending Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and launching a career as a venture capitalist.
“We’re becoming the kind of place where kids like me don’t feel like they can dream big dreams anymore,” said Vance, dressed in a neat white button-down, blazer and jeans, with a child clinging to his leg.
“I always felt like I could dream big dreams in Middletown. I always felt like things were going to work out for me so long as you worked hard and played by the rules. And of the things that happened in this country — and, of course, Middletown knows this well — is that a bunch of our idiot leaders decided over three or four decades, and unfortunately, it was a bipartisan decision, that we didn’t need to make things in this country anymore.”
To help tell his story, Vance invited his father, Don Bowman, along for the first leg of the tour.
Bowman and Vance (whose last name comes from his stepfather) talked about their plans for a steak dinner afterward and shooting “Mamaw’s 44 Magnum.”
Bowman, a Donald Trump supporter, also vouched that Vance has seen the light when it comes to the former president — whom Vance is on record calling an “idiot,” “noxious” and “reprehensible.” The comments have quickly become a liability in a pro-Trump GOP primary.
“He didn’t vote for Trump,” Bowman told the audience in Toledo. “J.D. was stubborn, like all kids are. But I would always tell him, ‘This guy’s got something.’ … About a year later, I called him and I could tell he was changing, something was happening. He was seeing the good that [Trump] did for the country.”
As in his book, Vance hardly mentions the former president by name, but Trump’s imprint is there. Vance rails against “companies that are in bed with Communist China,” Big Tech “censoring” Trump and far-right Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the “hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens coming into our country every year.”
A woman who said she was a good friend of Vance’s family described him as the “real deal” and praised him for “working his way up.”
At least one person was at the event just to get a book signed.
Vicki Trent, a 53-year-old who works in customer service, told HuffPost she wanted to check out Vance because she doesn’t like “the way things are going, even for Republicans. We need a new person, maybe a different perspective.”
She’s most concerned about being able to afford retirement. “When you look at your pay stub, and you see you’re paying the same Social Security as federal, and then at the end of the year they’re taking 30% of my check — that’s why I’m in debt,” she said.
Anthony Lococo, a 50-year old from Middletown who works in medical sales, said “Hillbilly Elegy” explored the challenges facing not just Middletown, but the entire state.
“There’s a lot of people in this town. There’s a wide range of economic diversity here. People are hurting in this town. We have one of the largest drug problems — you hear the sirens going all the time. We really have a lot of problems. It’s good to see someone not abandon the town or their roots,” Lococo said.
“Unfortunately, you’d hope that Middletown would start to look like the rest of Ohio, but now the rest of Ohio is more like Middletown,” he said.