With his poll numbers sagging and the criticism raging, venture capitalist and Senate hopeful J.D. Vance’s campaign appears to be dodging the spotlight.
The Daily Beast has learned the tech investor has now backed out of two upcoming debate appearances pitting him against the GOP primary field. The news comes as Vance falls more than a week behind his personal financial disclosure filing due date, which itself had already been extended for 90 days.
Asked why Vance ducked the debates, campaign spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk said in an email that Vance already had “prior commitments when we found out about the dates of the forums,” adding that “the campaign was not notified of the days of the forums until October 25.”
But emails reviewed by The Daily Beast challenge that claim.
Two emails confirm that the primary candidates, including Vance, had been informed of the dates several weeks in advance. The campaigns were also notified of one final change, related to an event in mid-November, in an email sent Sept. 27. That email, which The Daily Beast has reviewed, lists specific dates, locations, and estimated time slots for each of the upcoming debates.
The first of the forums—which Vance attended—was held Oct. 14, and the campaign only informed OPN that the author would not make the next two events after the fact, in an email sent Oct. 27.
“JD will not be attending the forums on Nov. 11 and Nov. 18. I’m not sure about the one on Nov. 29. I will keep you updated on that,” read the Oct. 27 email, which was signed by Van Kirk and reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Van Kirk would not disclose the nature of Vance’s “prior commitments,” explaining that “the campaign does not discuss scheduling matters.”
As for the financial disclosure deadline, Van Kirk claimed the Vance campaign is “working on the report” and “just waiting for a few additional pieces of information from third parties.”
That report may be no small task for the self-styled working-class hero, as Vance has diffuse financial interests. He is believed to be a millionaire several times over, thanks in part to book and movie deals for his bestselling Hillbilly Elegy and a long, successful career financing tech startups—an industry he now bashes on the campaign trail.
After graduating from Yale Law School, Vance moved to San Francisco, where he worked for Mithril Capital, the venture capital firm founded by billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel. Today, Thiel is almost single-handedly funding a pro-Vance super PAC, contributing $10 million out-of-pocket when it launched this spring. (The billionaire Mercer family, which also made its bones in the tech world, put money into the super PAC as well.)
Following his stint at Mithril, Vance went on to another investment firm, Revolution LLC—founded by AOL co-founder Steve Case. And after his time at Revolution, Vance launched his own Ohio-based fund, Nayra Capital, in partnership with Thiel, Google co-founder Eric Schmidt, and internet legend Marc Andreessen. Nayra raised $93 million for its January 2020 debut.
“Once we receive everything we need, we will file the report, well within the 30-day period provided for in the rules,” Van Kirk said in an email. Ethics rules stipulate that candidates have a 30-day window after their extension expires before incurring a $200 penalty, giving Vance as much as four months to get his finances in order.
Kedric Payne, general counsel and senior director of ethics at Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast that, regardless of whether Vance dodges the fine, he still violated the law.
“Financial disclosure laws have strict deadlines because voters have a right to know the candidate’s potential conflicts of interests well before they cast their ballots. When candidates fail to reveal their financial interests without any explanation, voters may question whether they will comply with ethics laws once elected,” Payne said.
“Establishment Republican apologies for our oligarchy should always come with the following disclaimer: ‘Big Tech pays my salary,’” Vance tweeted in April.
But going by the polls, the hometown hero’s legend alone does not appear to have directly translated to popularity in the political arena. After announcing his Senate bid from his native Middletown—where his campaign sign dropped from the lectern as he declared his candidacy—Vance’s support among GOP voters in the state has not cracked 20 percent.
Internal polls released by Republican primary frontrunner Josh Mandel have shown the former state treasurer with a commanding lead—as high as 28 points this summer, with a 5-point drop in late September. Last month, a survey sponsored by the Thiel-backed super PAC—and conducted by former Donald Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio—also put Mandel out front, but chopped his lead down to 3 points, at 19 percent to Vance’s 16 percent.
But Vance has more to worry about than Mandel. The chance to fill the seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman has given rise to a crowded Republican primary field. Hopefuls include former state GOP Chair and Trump fundraiser Jane Timken, tech executive Bernie Moreno, state Senator Matt Dolan, and investment banker Mike Gibbons, who has polled closest to Vance in the most recent surveys.
However, those polls also show that nearly a quarter of voters are still undecided, and the naked rancor between the candidates reflects a fierce race to the bottom for the MAGA mantle.
Which makes Vance’s cancelations all the more curious, since the public forums put him face-to-face with the voters he must win over.
But Vance is not the only one skipping those dates. Timken also recently notified OPN that she would miss the same two debates. In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Timken spokesperson cited unspecified scheduling conflicts, noting that Timken has participated in four forums within the last month.
“We enjoyed the OPN forum on October 14th, were never confirmed for November 11th or 18th due to scheduling conflicts, but are looking forward to participating again on the 29th. Jane is on the road constantly and Ohio is a big state—unfortunately, she just can’t be everywhere at once,” the statement said.
Timken notified OPN of her decision several days after Vance, two sources confirmed.
Mandel campaign spokesperson Scott Guthrie said that, “after being exposed as a self-proclaimed Never-Trumper,” Vance was now “refusing to stand on stage and answer questions from voters about being anti-Trump and calling Trump supporters ‘racist.’”
“Now JD Vance is unwilling to disclose his personal finances and potential conflicts of interest. What is JD Vance trying to hide from Ohio voters?” Guthrie said.
Mandel, who for now looks like the candidate to beat, has relished his opportunities to contrast himself with Vance. The polarizing, vaccine-ambiguous right-wing firebrand has routinely slugged his opponent for his apparent hypocrisy on Big Tech, personal wealth, and special interest affiliations.
Last week, when Vance tweeted an offer of an intimate dinner with himself and Thiel in exchange for a $10,800 maximum campaign donation, Mandel—another millionaire who also got a 90-day extension for his financial disclosure, but filed it on time—made a competing pitch.
“For $10.80 anyone can join me eating fries off the hood of the car at a gas station Denny’s at midnight,” he wrote, above a picture of him appearing to do just that.
But when it comes to selling voters in the reddening state of Ohio, Vance’s biggest weak spot may be his sudden about-face on his prior criticisms of Trump. That issue was foregrounded in a $470,000 anti-Vance ad campaign launched by Mandel surrogates in late October.
Vance bailed on the forums four days later.