COLUMBUS, Ohio – JD Vance, the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ who was a fiery critic of Donald Trump before he converted in one of his staunchest allies, defeated Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan in The Ohio Senate RaceNBC News Projects.
Vance will succeed fellow Republican Rob Portman, who did not seek re-election. Unlike Portman, Vance has advanced unsubstantiated theories that a second term was stolen from Trump at the polls in 2020.
The race has become a unexpected and Dear battleground in the struggle for partisan control of the Senate. Portman’s previous success and Trump’s two comfortable victories in Ohio made the 49-year-old Ryan a heavy underdog. But Ryan has tailored his campaign to independents and moderate Republicans, portraying himself as a champion of the working class.
Vance, 38, has had to overcome poor fundraising, rookie mistakes that threatened to undermine his campaign over the summer and suspicions within his own party about his past opposition to Trump. Polls in the summer and early fall showed Ryan tied with Vance, though polls in recent weeks suggested Vance was pulling ahead.
National GOP groups, including those aligned with Trump and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, helped Vance make up for his shortcomings, pumping tens of millions of dollars into ads that attacked Ryan’s record in Congress. Despite his efforts to portray himself as a centrist, Ryan had a voting record that tied him closely to President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
And though Ryan at one point challenged Pelosi’s leadership, Republicans called him a puppet of Pelosi, echoing rhetoric from other races across the country during an election season punctuated by a violent offensive on Pelosi’s husband at the couple’s San Francisco home on Oct. 28.
Ryan, who is in his 10th term representing a district in the Youngstown area, briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Unlike Vance, he had some help from outside groups as he sought a seat in the Senate.
Many national Democratic groups have looked at their losses in Ohio over the past decade and deemed the state unworthy of their investment this year. The groups instead prioritized incumbents in states like Arizona, Georgia and Nevada and a pickup opportunity in Pennsylvania. The only reach of the national party was North Carolinawhich has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 2008. Ohio has re-elected Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown twice since then.
Vance, a venture capitalist, has reinvented himself as a Trump cheerleader in recent years while cultivating relationships with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson and others on the far right. But at the start of a Primary GOP which featured several other candidates woo aggressively Trump’s endorsement, Vance trailed known quantities like former state treasurer Josh Mandel and former state GOP chairwoman Jane Timken. He also struggled to outplay self-funded candidates like investment banker Mike Gibbons and state senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians.
But a series of debates — bad for short-lived leaders Mandel and Gibbons, strong for newcomer Vance — helped sell Trump on an endorsement. And Trump’s support helped Vance emerge from the cluttered field with a plurality.
Ryan had a much easier primary and quickly rallied his resources around a summer publicity blitz that established him as a moderate who could hit populist notes with his tough talk on China. (An early ad suggesting China was to blame for the economic malaise in the United States was reprimanded by an Asian American group.) Vance, on the other hand, had little money to counter Ryan’s ads and sparked complaints from Ohio GOP leaders that he was heading into the general election. Vance’s team has always claimed they’ll be back on the air once the campaign’s war chest is replenished and outside spending groups launch their attacks after Labor Day.
But Vance himself simmered over Ryan’s commercials.
“I actually spoke to a donor yesterday who told me he thought Tim Ryan was running in the Republican primary,” Vance said in July. “And he was confused because he thought the Republican primary was over.”
The contest, in its final weeks, centered on authenticity and on who might best identify with the middle-of-the-road Republicans put off by Trump’s MAGA movement. Vance, who had previously campaigned alongside polarizing right-wing figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, began sharing events with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican known for his crossover appeal who was also up for reelection on Tuesday.
Ryan has racked up endorsements from several prominent Republicans, including Bernie Kosar, the Youngstown native and revered former Cleveland Browns quarterback known for his fundraising and activism for the GOP. He campaigned with national labor leaders and with Brown, the only Democrat in recent Ohio history to achieve lasting electoral success. He campaigned with national labor leaders and with Brown, the only Democrat in recent Ohio history to achieve lasting electoral success.
“Sherrod, they’re going to be like, ‘What happened in Ohio with those two guys?'” Ryan, imagining a scenario where the state has two Democratic senators for the first time in over a decade. quarter century, said Sunday night during a union rally with Brown in Cleveland. “It will be funny.”
Ryan also grabbed a comment from Trump at a rally in Youngstown in September, where the former president joked that Vance was “kissing my a–.” The people of Ohio, Ryan countered, deserved an “a– kicker.”
Trump returned to Ohio the day before the election to gather with Vance outside Dayton and worked to correct his past remark.
“JD will never belong to the establishment. Neither will he belong to me, unfortunately,” Trump told the audience. “I’m doing what’s right for the country. He’s a very independent guy. And he’s going to be an independent senator who’s only loyal to the people of Ohio.”