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JD Vance, Josh Mandel, and the GOP's race to the bottom
Candidates in Ohio's GOP primary are convinced the way to win is to be the worst possible choice. They may be right.
You won’t find a better encapsulation of the race to the bottom that Republican primaries will be in the months to come than JD Vance’s unhinged response to receiving an endorsement from (arguably) America’s least-hinged member of Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Greene is a hateful, bigoted conspiracy theorist who doesn’t even pretend to be interested in using her office for anything beyond trolling and triggering liberals. But Trump and far-right media like Newsmax and Steve Bannon’s podcast love her, and she’s emerged as a significant national figure. One could actually argue that among Republican primary voters, her endorsement is second in importance only to Trump’s.
So when Greene announced her endorsement of Vance in a Fox News piece on Tuesday morning, he responded by boosting it with commentary that gives you a flavor of the sort of campaign he’s running.
“Honored to have Marjorie’s endorsement. We’re going to win this thing and take the country back from the scumbags,” Vance tweeted.
There are a couple notable things about Vance’s tweet. First and most obviously is his dehumanizing use of “scumbags,” which is also a little bit funny, since the Senate seat he’s running for is actually held by a Republican, Rob Portman. It’s not the first time Vance has used that term while referring to liberals, and it reflects how his political brand has shifted from moralizing and criticizing Trump for his transgressions in 2016 (“Lord help us,” Vance said in a now-deleted tweet on the day the Access Hollywood tape was published) to mimicking Trump’s own playground bully tactics.
It’s also notable that Vance would make a big deal about receiving Greene’s endorsement in the first place. You’re probably aware by now that Greene rose to national political prominence during the 2020 cycle because she was the Republican who had most enthusiastically embraced maliciously false conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate.
“There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” she said in one video posted in 2017.
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Comments of that sort made Republican leadership squeamish about Greene during the lead-up to the 2020 election, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying “there is no place for QAnon in the Republican Party” during an August 2020 interview. But after Greene took office and came under fresh criticism for social media posts in which she seemed to endorse political violence, McCarthy demonstrated where his party was heading by kinda-sorta defending her.
“I don’t even know what [QAnon] is,” McCarthy claimed in February 2020. At the same time, he was opposing the ultimately successful effort to strip Greene of her committee assignments.
McCarthy came to understand that if he was going to remain the House Republican leader, he’d have to make his peace with the Taylor Greenes and Lauren Boeberts of his caucus. Vance understands this as well, which is why he’s so enthusiastic about getting Greene’s endorsement.
Vance is transparently fraudulent, but Greene’s effort should help his flailing campaign
Vance, a Yale Law School graduate, first came to national prominence as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a June 2016 memoir that detailed the demoralized economic and cultural conditions in which Trump-style demagoguery could take root. At the time, he was a Trump critic.
“I can’t stomach Trump. I think that he’s noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place,” he said back then.
But as he started considering running for office, Vance tacked hard to the right flank of the right wing. I detailed Vance’s devolution in a piece I wrote for Vox last March:
In recent months, Vance has approvingly retweeted the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Dinesh D’Souza; done softball interviews with Tucker Carlson and far-right former Trump administration official Seb Gorka; tweeted Trump-style attacks on the media (for instance asking, “Why are so many members of the press such incredible babies?”); and promoted a QAnon-inspired conspiracy theory by suggesting a group of unrelated sexual misconduct cases is evidence of a cabal.
“Someone should have asked Jeffrey Epstein, John Weaver, or Leon Black about the CRAZY CONSPIRACY that many powerful people were predators targeting children,” Vance tweeted on February 11. [Vance has since deleted this tweet.]
To the extent that Vance has expressed interest in policy, his platform has largely centered on immigration restrictionism, complaining about Trump being banished from Facebook and Twitter, calling out alleged liberal hypocrisy, and trying to make hay out of Trumpist culture war wedge issues like the supposed cancelation of Dr. Seuss.
All of that holds up. If anything, Vance has gotten more extreme in the 10 months since I wrote It. He’s pushed baseless conspiracies about Biden wanting to open concentration camps, praised Kyle Rittenhouse for making “good decisions” and being “a positive force in his community,” and spread blatant misinformation about January 6.
Then, as if deliberately demonstrating that all of this is just an act, Vance’s most recent financial disclosure showed that as he railed against the so-called “elites” on Fox News and elsewhere, he made $400,000 in salary from his job at a venture capital firm backed by Peter Thiel. Thiel also gave a whopping $10 million to a pro-Vance super PAC.
Considering all this phoniness, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Vance has struggled to gain traction and is only polling at around 10 percent. But Greene’s endorsement should give him a boost.
The Ohio primary is a parade of horribles
Despite all of the above, Vance probably isn’t the most extreme candidate in the race. That title arguably belongs to former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, whose Twitter account was suspended last year for “hateful conduct,” as explained by the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Mandel’s account created a poll about which type of “illegals” would commit more crimes, “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers.” His campaign later shared that the account was temporarily suspended for 12 hours for violating Twitter’s policies on “hateful conduct.”
Mandel was unrepentant — he said he regarded his suspension as “a badge of honor” — and in the months since he’s pushed the big lie that Biden stole the 2020 election at every turn (“we can't move on to 2022 until we fully investigate all of the Democrats cheating from 2020 … the time for civility is over,” he said last month), encouraged people to “arm up” against the “tyranny” of “mask mandates and vaccine passports,” and endorsed Christian fundamentalism.
It’s not like the other two of the top four candidates are great either. One of them, a businessman named Mike Gibbons, has lamented that young Americans are being indoctrinated by “wokeism,” called Black Lives Matter as a “false narrative,” and dismissed the oppression of women as a myth. The fourth, former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken, is probably the relative moderate, but even she is so invested in that big lie that she called on Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) to resign simply because he voted for Trump’s impeachment following the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Recent polls show Mandel has a solid lead over the other three, but the primary isn’t until May, so a lot could change as Ohioans get to know the candidates and significant endorsement roll in.
Ohio is everywhere
The gutter fight quality of this GOP primary season isn’t unique to Ohio. Similar brawls are underway in Pennsylvania and Missouri.
Missouri is a deep red state, meaning the winner of the Republican primary there is very likely to win the general and become a US senator. And Ohio has trended red in the last decade, too — Trump beat Biden there by about eight points in 2020. So if Mandel or Vance emerges from the primary, there’s a good shot the Senate’s fringe far-right caucus will expand next year.
Considering the radicalized nature of the GOP base, Taylor Greene’s endorsement is big news for Vance. But as Fox News acknowledged in its writeup of the news, her endorsement might be “directed toward an audience of one … and that one person is former President Donald Trump.”
As will likely be the case in other races, Trump may ultimately be the kingmaker in Ohio, and the sorry state of the primary race speaks volumes about what his dominance of the GOP has wrought. Paying lip service to the big lie is required. Dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants and perceived political enemies is par for the course. And while going down that path seems like it ought to make it hard for Republican candidates in purple states to win general elections, that may not be the case in a reddening state like Ohio during a midterm election cycle that would’ve been difficult for Democrats under normal circumstances.