Ohio’s blockbuster Republican Senate primary just got even bigger.
J.D. Vance, the venture capitalist and best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy” officially launched his campaign Thursday, joining the crowded race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman. Vance announced his campaign with a rally in his home town of Middletown, Ohio.
Vance’s long-anticipated entrance amps up what is already a competitive and nasty primary battle that includes a handful of well-funded candidates and no decisive frontrunner.
In a speech at the rally, Vance echoed themes from his book, talking about his family and community. But he also hit on a handful of major issues for conservatives that have already played a central role in Senate primaries, including railing against critical race theory, attacking the Biden administration’s border policies and criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I think we need people in Washington who are fighters — and not just fighters, but smart fighters,” Vance said. “There are a lot of fighters in Washington, D.C. They just fight for the wrong things.”
Vance added that the Senate needs someone "who knows how the system works, who knows how to reform that system and who can make this country better."
Other candidates have already been off and running for months, raising money and angling for former President Donald Trump’s backing in the race — though the former president has yet to endorse and name-checked several of the candidates at his rally in the state last week. The race includes Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer who lost the 2012 Senate race; Jane Timken, the former state party chair; and businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons. Other Republicans could still enter the fray in the coming months.
One Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, called it “anybody’s game” because of the number of candidates.
“Now that J.D. Vance has entered the race it is more unclear than ever who has the advantage,” the strategist said.
“Establishment donors have splintered between a number of candidates. Republican primary voters will certainly follow suit,” the strategist added.
Mandel, who has aggressively courted Trump supporters with incendiary tweets and comments, has led the early polling in the race, holding an edge in name identification thanks to his past statewide campaigns. He also announced raising $1.5 million in the second quarter of this year. But the Columbus Dispatch reported this week several of Mandel’s fundraising staffers left his campaign recently amid a toxic work environment.
Timken has focused on early organizing in the campaign, launching door knocking and advertisements earlier than the other campaigns. She raised $1 million and self-funded another $1 million in the first quarter this year, but has not yet released second-quarter numbers. Gibbons hauled in $6 million in the last three months, including $5 million of his own money. Moreno has not yet released his fundraising totals but is also thought to have the capacity to self-fund. He previously announced raising $1 million in his first month.
Vance enters the race with some name ID for a first-time candidate, including notoriety from his book and the Netflix movie based on it and frequent appearances on Fox News Channel speaking to the GOP base. But he will also have to grapple with his past criticisms of Trump from 2016. He met with Trump earlier this year.
Several of his rivals knocked him over a since-deleted tweet from October of 2016 about supporting independent candidate Evan McMullin in the presidential race, which was resurfaced by CNN Thursday.
“Not only do we welcome to the race, we welcome him to the Republican Party,” Wes Farno, a senior adviser to Gibbons, said in a statement.
Mandi Merritt, a spokeswoman for Timken, also referenced McMullin in a statement that took swipes at the other candidates. Merrit called Timken “the only true America First candidate who fought in the trenches over the last five years for President Trump and his winning policies for Ohio.”
But Vance also has well-funded allies to boost him alongside whatever he raises for the campaign. Peter Thiel, the tech giant and venture capitalist, gave $10 million to a super PAC supporting Vance. The group is already running a six-figure digital ad boosting Vance as he starts his run.
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