Republican JD Vance journeys from 'Hillbilly Elegy' memoirist to US senator to VP contender

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It was March 2022 and Senate candidate JD Vance was standing under hot lights in a Cleveland television studio debating four fellow Republicans on whether the U.S. should support a no-fly zone over Ukraine, not a month into its grinding war with Russia.

“Absolutely not,” Vance said.

“I’m in the minority up here,” the Marine veteran added, “because, at the end of the day, we can accept as individuals, look, it’s tragic, it’s terrible. What Vladimir Putin did was wrong in invading a sovereign country on his border. But we have our own problems in the United States to focus on.”

Vance was “putting America’s priorities ahead of all else,” his campaign said — and he had caught Donald Trump‘s attention.

Within 25 days, the former president had endorsed Vance, helping the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and Yale-educated Silicon Valley venture capitalist defeat a crowded Republican field and ultimately win Ohio’s open Senate seat.

A relationship had been born that’s now nudged Vance, 39, onto Trump’s vice presidential short list. Trump boosted Vance’s career, and Vance has returned the favor by unceasingly defending Trump’s policies and behavior. His debating skills, ability to articulate Trump’s vision and fund-raising prowess are all potential assets for Vance, those familiar with the vetting process say.

It’s far from where Vance’s relationship to Trump started. His best-selling book gained Vance a reputation as a “Trump whisperer” able to help explain the maverick New York businessman’s appeal in middle America, but Vance was a never-Trumper in 2016. He called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” for office. Vance, whose wife, lawyer Usha Chilukuri Vance, is Indian-American and the mother of their three children, also criticized Trump’s racist rhetoric, saying he could be “America’s Hitler.”

After Trump won, Vance returned to his native Ohio and set up an anti-opioid charity. He took to the lecture circuit and was a favored guest at Republican Lincoln Day dinners. His sought-after appearances weren’t book signings so much as opportunities to sell his ideas for fixing the country — an approach opponents would cast as all-too-convenient groundwork-laying exercises for entering politics in 2021.

Former Republican Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, a fellow Yale graduate, frequently shared stages with Vance then. He said Vance’s story, the hardship and heartbreak endured because of his mother’s drug addiction, resonated. The opioid epidemic that ravaged Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia when he was growing up was killing a dozen Ohioans a day on average in 2016.

“The struggles that he’s talking about are the struggles that a lot of people could identify with,” Obhof said.

Vance’s family left the house in Middletown where he grew up, but he still has a fan living there. Standing on the porch one recent morning, the shoes of her six teenagers strewn under a hammock, 35-year-old Amanda Bailey said she thought “Hillbilly Elegy” nailed it, and that Trump and Vance would “make a great team.”

“I grew up here all my life; moved away, came back. I think he portrayed Middletown very well,” she said. “All of it. The struggle, the economical aspect of it, the cultural aspect of it. Just all around. I think it was pretty spot on.”

But not everyone sees the book — later adapted into a Ron Howard-directed film, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams — that way. It ignited criticism from scholars across Appalachia, many of whom said it trafficked in cheap stereotypes and failed to diagnose the origins of the region’s troubled history or offer workable policy solutions.

Some city officials in Middletown still cringe at its mention. They fear their town has forever been branded a forsaken backwater, even as investments pour into local manufacturing, infrastructure and recreational opportunities.

The Senate office Vance set up in town sits unmarked behind a locked door.

“So many people from Appalachia were upset about it, because he is not telling his own story. In the middle of the book, he shifts from ‘I’ to ‘we,’” said Meredith McCarroll, co-author of the 2019 book “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.” “Appalachia is a 13-state region that is far from monolithic, and he is not only representing it as one singular place, but he’s representing it very negatively and blaming the victim.”

Vance has acknowledged some criticism. He recently told The New York Times he’d distanced himself from “Hillbilly Elegy,” in order not to “wake up in 10 years and really hate everything that I’ve become.”

Yet it introduced him to the Trump family. Don Jr. loved the book and knew of Vance when he went to launch his political career. The two hit it off and have remained friends. The Ohioan’s populist rhetoric seemed Trumpian.

By the time Vance met Trump in 2021, he had reversed his opinion, citing Trump’s accomplishments as president.

McCarroll said Vance’s evolution on his book and Trump shows he’s “really willing to do and say what he needs to do and say in order to find himself in a position of power.”

Once elected, Vance became a fierce Trump ally on Capitol Hill. Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he’s now a leading voice for a conservative movement, on key issues including a shift away from interventionist foreign policy, free market economics and “American culture writ large.”

“Given his upbringing, he has not only overcome that but used that to become a great patriot serving in the U.S. Marines, to build a great career in business, and now to serving in the Senate,” Roberts said.

Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative activist group Turning Point USA, said Vance compellingly articulates the America First world view and, as a running mate, could help Trump in states that share Ohio’s values, demographics and economy.

“I say commonly that JD Vance’s superpower is his ability to go into adversarial media environments, be calm, cool and collected, and say things that are very persuasive without raising his voice,” Kirk said.

Vance’s politics can be difficult to pigeonhole.

Democrats call him an extremist, citing provocative positions Vance has taken but sometimes later amended. Vance signaled support for a national 15-week abortion ban during his Senate run, for instance, then softened that stance once Ohio voters overwhelmingly backed a 2023 abortion rights amendment. On the 2020 election, he said he wouldn’t have certified the results immediately if he had been vice president and that Trump had “a very legitimate grievance.” He has put conditions on honoring the results of the 2024 election that echo Trump’s.

“A Trump-Vance ticket would sink the GOP into new depths of extremism,” Alex Floyd, a Democratic National Committee spokesperson, said in a statement.

In the Senate, Vance sometimes embraces bipartisanship. He and Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown co-sponsored a railway safety bill following a fiery train derailment in the Ohio village of East Palestine. He’s sponsored legislation extending and increasing funding for Great Lakes restoration, and supported bipartisan legislation boosting workers and families.

Chris Tape, his high school physics teacher, remembers Vance as an engaging, fun 17-year-old. Vance never mentioned his rough upbringing, Tape said.

When Vance told him he was joining the Marines, Tape expressed surprise — telling him he was gifted enough to write his own ticket. Vance said he loved his country and if he wasn’t willing to serve it, “it’s all talk.”

“So I know at least one thing about him,” Tape said. “He believes in his country, he believes in serving it, and he’s willing to take a more difficult path directly in order to do that.”

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