Venture capital executive and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance on Thursday officially announced his long-anticipated 2022 Senate campaign. He joins a cramped field of pro-Trump conservatives vying for the Ohio seat currently held by Republican Rob Portman, who is retiring after two terms.
“We need people in Washington, D.C., who knows how the system works, who knows how to reform that system and even make this country better,” Vance said. “And that’s why I’m running to be your next U.S. senator from the state of Ohio.”
Vance, a Yale law grad and self-styled working-class hero, made the announcement at the Middletown Tube Works factory in his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, speaking behind a lectern adorned with a campaign placard that tagged the candidate as, “Conservative. Outsider.” (The sign fell from the lectern in the middle of the speech, moments before Vance made his official declaration.)
He drew a hard line between the working class and the elites, attacking “Big Tech” and industrial outsourcing. And while Vance sold himself as an insider who knew how to change those systems, he also tapped into his working-class background, often recalling the childhood lessons from his blue-collar memoir that attracted critical acclaim.
One of the most central components, however, was his grievance that conservatives are “not allowed to complain,” a phrase he repeated throughout, attaching it to critiques of immigration, tech firms, critical race theory, and corruption.
“If you look at every issue in this country—every issue, I believe, traces back to this fact. On the one hand, the elites in this country are robbing us blind; and on the other hand, if you complain about it you’re a bad person,” he said.
The remedy, he said, is outsiders who are also insiders, “people who understand how the elites plunder this country and then blame us for it in the process.”
But Vance is perhaps uniquely vulnerable on this exact point. His resume boasts stints at investment firms run by founding members of Facebook and America Online, and his candidacy has been boosted by millions in corporate dollars.
And, if corruption is a concern, one of his own campaign’s first senior hires appears to have had a front-row seat to the swampiest bribery scandal in the history of Ohio.
According to Cleveland.com, Vance has tapped Bryan Gray as his political director. Gray served as deputy chief of staff to former Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, who was indicted last July as the ringleader of that $60 million bribery scheme. Householder stands accused of using a super PAC to funnel tens of millions of dollars from a private utility company to his political allies in return for a $1.5 billion legislative bailout for nuclear plants owned by the utility.
A lobbyist charged alongside Householder later identified Gray, who resigned after Householder’s arrest, as the unnamed staffer who attended a dinner detailed in the indictment. Prosecutors had quoted the staffer saying, “[W]hat we need to make them realize is that you [Householder] can’t be fucked with.” And the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in July that a Republican state legislator who later blew the whistle on Householder placed Gray at a separate meeting, during which the whistleblower first realized Householder was running a pay-to-play scheme.
Gray declined to comment for this article.
That legislator also named another Vance connection at the meeting: Megan Fitzmartin, who according to a fundraising email now serves as political director of Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC backing Vance. At the time, Fitzmartin reportedly worked for one of the lobbyists also indicted in the scandal.
Protect Ohio Values did not reply to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
That super PAC has already drawn high-dollar gifts from megadonors. Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member who co-founded PayPal and data firm Palantir, which law enforcement agencies have tapped in surveillance efforts, gave the PAC $10 million in March. Thiel hired Vance out of law school at his investment firm Mithra Capital and later contributed seed money for Vance’s own Ohio-based venture capital firm.
Still, in recent tweets and media appearances, the author has taken aim at vintage Trump targets, including Big Tech, immigration policy, and the current conservative cause célèbre, critical race theory. And his announcement Thursday was rife with attacks on those
Though Vance registered just 4 percent in a recent poll, Ohio Republicans have indicated they consider the nationally recognized author a viable threat. He’s already been the subject of two anonymous text message blasts to GOP voters in the state, the most recent attacking him as a “Never Trumper.”
But if Vance is banking on an endorsement from Trump himself, his employment history may not be his highest hurdle. While the New York Times called Hillbilly Elegy “one of the six best books to help understand Trump’s win,” Vance himself didn’t help elect Trump in 2016. He cast that ballot for Utah libertarian candidate Evan McMullin.
At some point, he deleted the evidence.