When J.D. Vance took the stage at a conservative conference last week, it should have prompted sighs of relief from Republicans hoping to see the Ohio GOP’s U.S. Senate nominee hit the campaign trail harder.
There was just one problem: the stage Vance took was in Israel, 6,000 miles away from Ohio.
The spectacle of Vance gushing in Tel Aviv about Israel’s high birth rates—to a friendly audience stocked with plenty of conservatives but almost certainly no Ohio voters—seemed to distill for some Republicans everything that’s wrong with his campaign right now.
Back in the Buckeye State, many are still waiting for Vance to show up, as the most critical phase of the campaign season draws near.
Bill Cunningham, a fixture on conservative talk radio airwaves in Cincinnati for decades, told The Daily Beast that voters, party activists, and even statewide officials are telling him that Vance has been phoning it in. Vance is allegedly missing from many of the county fairs, party meetings, and campaign stops where candidates in this state are expected to be.
“The Republican faithful are telling me,” Cunningham said, “they can't find J.D. Vance with a search warrant.”
Others say it’s not just that they don’t see Vance—the anti-Trump literary celeb turned MAGA firebrand—pounding the pavement in Ohio. Privately, some aren’t even getting calls back from him, or his campaign, to discuss how they can help.
That group includes campaign donors whom Vance literally cannot afford to lose. The candidate’s fundraising has been anemic, and because he’s carrying debt from the bruising primary, Vance is in the unenviable position of asking donors to pay off those debts.
One GOP source in state politics said Vance’s lack of followup with some important donors in the state has been disappointing. “When the fundraising numbers came out, it’s full-on panic now,” they said.
“It’s a code red,” said Ron Verb, a longtime talk radio host in Youngstown, who has been sounding the alarm about Vance on his show. “I think he’s running the worst campaign that you could possibly run.”
Meanwhile, Republicans begrudgingly admit that the Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, is perhaps running the best possible campaign from a Democrat in this increasingly conservative state.
Ryan has raised a staggering $12 million for his campaign so far. And he is using that war chest to blanket Ohio airwaves with ads touting his blue collar bona fides, amplifying his professed desire to break with fellow Democrats on key issues, like inflation and crime. (Notably, Ryan has been a reliable Democratic vote during his two decades in Congress.)
With Vance largely absent on the airwaves and the campaign trail, Republicans fret that Ryan is successfully defining himself before Vance is—and that time is running out for the Republican to right the ship.
A GOP source in state politics said it’s a “widespread trend” that Republicans officials are hearing in their networks about Ryan’s crossover appeal. “People who are Republicans are saying, ‘that Tim Ryan guy, he’s alright, I like the way he sounds,’” the GOP source said.
That’s why Vance’s mid-campaign venture to Israel especially rankled some Republicans. “Tim Ryan is talking about kitchen-table issues, and J.D. Vance is out there going to fucking CPAC in Israel,” said a veteran strategist with deep ties to the state. “Republicans are like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ This isn’t some fucking book tour, dude.”
Cunningham, the Cincinnati talk radio host, said he has been speaking regularly with Vance. He shared with The Daily Beast his advice to the candidate: “I told J.D., ‘This race is yours to lose, and at this point, you’re losing it.’ Your staff won’t tell you, but I just did.”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Vance campaign spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk said Vance just wrapped up an eight-stop statewide tour focused on law enforcement and crime issues.
Van Kirk also noted that Vance just received the endorsement of the NFIB, the advocacy group for small businesses, calling the candidate an “unwavering champion for small businesses,” as opposed to Ryan, whom the Republican blames for inflation and anti-business policies.
Republicans say they would like to see more of that kind of rhetoric from Vance himself—less so tweets like one he sent on Friday, decrying the conviction of Trump ally Steve Bannon.
Holding the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman should be one of the easiest things Republicans do in a midterm election year that is shaping up to be brutal for Democrats. Republicans are going all-in on flipping or holding seats in six states that President Joe Biden won in 2020; Ohio, which Trump carried easily in 2016 and 2020, was not supposed to be a priority.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Ryan campaign spokesperson Jordan Fuja called Vance’s campaign effort an “insult to the people of this state.”
“Instead of meeting face-to-face with the people he claims he wants to represent, J.D. Vance has spent the better part of the last month hiding out at home or trying to get as much distance from Ohio as humanly possible,” Fuja said.
A lackluster campaign from Vance, of course, could still result in a comfortable win in November. Many Republicans simply don’t see a scenario in which Vance loses a state where Biden’s approval rating is 23 points below water, and some key figures in the party are professing no concerns with Vance’s campaign organization so far.
Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the GOP in Hamilton County in Cincinnati and its suburbs, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that he had just gotten off a Zoom call with Vance campaign officials and was encouraged by the briefing on their field operation.
Southwestern Ohio is where Vance’s support may run deepest—his hometown of Middletown is 40 miles north of Cincinnati—and Triantafilou said the candidate and his organization have been doing what they need to do in the area.
“I don’t think anyone is taking it for granted,” Triantafilou said. Though he added: “I cannot see Ohio delivering Joe Biden another vote. I just don’t see it happening.”
At the very least, however, Ohio is shaping up to be a tougher fight for Republicans than they had perhaps bargained for. That threatens to divert GOP dollars that are badly needed to flip seats in places like Arizona and Georgia—the last thing national Republicans need as they try to break the 50-50 split in the Senate and recapture the majority in the chamber.
With less than three months to go until early voting begins in the race, the exact scenario that some Vance-skeptical Republicans were worried about may be coming to fruition.
For much of the nasty, expensive primary, Vance was unable to gain an edge over—or even poll ahead of—a field of rivals that included a previous U.S. Senate nominee, two wealthy self-funding businessmen, and the former chair of the state GOP.
That changed when Vance landed the coveted endorsement of former President Donald Trump, which likely gave him the boost he needed. He ultimately won the nomination with just over 32 percent of the primary vote.
But the Trump boost may have papered over the fundamental weaknesses in Vance’s operation. He has never been a strong fundraiser. Instead, an outside group largely funded by Vance’s mentor, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, spent millions through the primary to promote Vance and conduct voter outreach.
However, Vance cannot touch any of that money to directly fund his campaign operation. His most pressing problem now is that he’s not attracting enough donors: Vance’s latest federal campaign finance filing shows his campaign committee went broke after he won the primary. Further, the campaign is prioritizing donations to pay down Vance’s $700,000 in personal loans.
The campaign ended June $250,000 underwater, with more debt than cash on hand, and his joint fundraising committees are struggling to keep up. That has raised concerns and criticism that Vance’s fundraising struggles may reflect a lack of grassroots support and enthusiasm among the state’s Republican and independent voters.
“Ohio should be off the table—in early September—and Republicans should be on offense in other places,” said the veteran strategist. “It’s similar to the primary: Vance is going to need a bailout again, and it’s likely going to have to come from Thiel.”
“It’s a real shame money needs to go to Ohio,” the strategist continued. “Any other candidate that would have emerged from the primary would have had a good opportunity to put away Tim Ryan by Labor Day."
Another longtime Republican strategist in the state told The Daily Beast that the campaign’s passive attitude in the primary won’t fly in the general election.
“It seems like a mix of not knowing what they are doing—they didn’t run much of a primary campaign and were functionally dead before Trump’s endorsement and Thiel’s money bailed them out at the last minute—and J.D. not seeming to want to do much, anyway. I think they are also just reading the environment and trying to play a ‘prevent defense’—keeping J.D.’s profile low, minimizing gaffes,” the strategist said.
Still, there are some signs that the Vance operation is working to make up for lost time. Verb, the talk radio host in Youngstown, said he is welcoming Vance onto his show next week. It’s an opportunity for the Republican candidate to court Ryan’s own constituents, who have sent him to Congress for two decades but are far more conservative now than they were before.
“I told him, you need to be on this program more often, because this is Tim Ryan’s home area, and you’re void here,” Verb said. “That’s perhaps why he’s coming on next week.”
Of course, the Republicans who are most harshly critical of Vance don’t want to see him lose. To the contrary: they want to see him hold this seat and defeat Ryan, whose attempt at persuading Trump voters is annoying and infuriating to many GOP loyalists.
“Tim Ryan is a fraud and a phony,” Verb said. “With all of that being said, he is running one of the most effective campaigns I’ve seen.”
Vance, Verb continued, “better get off his ass, figure out why he isn’t raising more money, why the Republican Party isn’t behind him raising money, and try to counter the ad campaign of Tim Ryan.”