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Do Ohio Voters Actually Know Who J.D. Vance Is?

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J.D. Vance, the Republican Senate candidate who earlier this month went on Fox News in a desperate attempt to disown prior criticism of Donald Trump, continued his appeal to the MAGA base appeal when discussing one of the former president’s favorite pet topics: the New York Times. The Hillbilly Elegy author on Wednesday bashed one of the paper’s reporters, Katie Benner, after she mused about labeling Trump supporters “enemies of the state” in a now-deleted Twitter thread tied to the January 6 hearing on the violent insurrection. Appearing on Fox News’ Outnumbered, Vance called the comment “disgusting” and “preposterous,” seizing on Benner’s tweet about the threat posed by violent Trump supporters—such as those who stormed the Capitol—as fodder for his populist campaign. “Are me and my family domestic terrorists? Are we extremists because we voted for Donald Trump in the last election?”

The digs at the paper follow Vance calling Times columnist Paul Krugman a “weird cat [lady]” over the weekend, a response the Washington Monthly dubbed a “misogynist dog whistle.” Also on Wednesday’s Outnumbered appearance, he weighed in on gymnast Simon Biles bowing out of the Tokyo Olympics for mental health reasons—recently a bizarre point of contention for conservative pundits. The media “tried to turn a tragic moment, Simone Biles quitting the team, into this act of heroism,” Vance said of the famed gymnast, opining that the press has “turned this into this weird therapeutic moment” by lauding her for her “failures.” (Vance’s take did not go over well with host Dagen McDowell, to say the least.)

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Whether the former Never Trumper can get to the Senate through cable news punditry and Twitter controversies remains to be seen. The view from Ohio, chronicled by Politico’s Sheehan Hannan, shows “salt-of-the-earth voters” still familiarizing themselves with Vance, whose beltway presence has apparently failed to register among those he’s trying to represent. “In nearly two dozen conversations with politics watchers and regular voters here before and after Vance officially announced his candidacy, a few did not recognize Vance’s name at all,” Hannan reports, noting that “most voters, with some prompting,” were able to make the connection not as a politician but “as someone they had seen on the news, or whose life story had been made into a movie on Netflix.”

One pair of Trump diehards at Vance’s announcement event earlier this month told Hannan they “don’t really know anything about J.D.” but have been “more than disappointed” with Senator Rob Portman, whom Vance—along with frontrunners Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons, both of whom Ohio voters know from past bids—is vying to replace. “I don’t know that rank-and-file Ohio Republicans have given him a moment’s thought,” political science professor David Niven told Politico. “I probably need to read this dude’s book,” said one. A spokesperson for Vance’s campaign insisted to Politico that Vance, “a true political outsider,” has “been overwhelmed with grassroots support” since entering the race and claimed in a statement that “unlike career politicians, J.D.’s voice is authentically aligned with Ohio’s working class.”

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In Ohio, which went for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, Hannan notes that Republican primaries “have become referendums on just how absolute a grip Trumpism, and Trump himself, should have on the state’s Republicans.” So whether Vance can effectively wash his hands of his anti-Trump past—and cast himself as MAGA’s native voice—presents a major challenge. He seems to know it, too, based on campaign speeches invoking fan-favorite attacks on critical race theory and liberal elites. Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel has given $10 million to a super PAC promoting Vance with spots highlighting his origin story and disdain for Big Tech—a disconnect spotlighted in Ohio House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz’s Cincinnati Enquirer opinion earlier this month, headlined with a plea to fellow Republicans: “Don’t buy what J.D. Vance is selling.”

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