JD Vance VP Speculation Caps Rise From Poverty to Washington

(Bloomberg) -- JD Vance, who gained national attention just eight years ago with his “Hillbilly Elegy” memoir of growing up in Rust Belt poverty, is the next-generation populist leader in the top tier of Donald Trump’s potential running mates.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The US senator from Ohio is perhaps more closely aligned with the former president than any other candidate on Trump’s vice presidential shortlist. Selection would position Vance to be the standard-bearer of Trumpism after Trump and a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2028.

“He is a younger and more articulate version of Trump,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz said of Vance, who at 39 years old is the second-youngest member of the Senate.

The bearded senator, who often campaigns in jeans and a button-down, rose from poverty to venture capitalist via Yale Law School and service with US Marines in Iraq. He was elected to his first public office only in 2022.

Trump endorsed Vance in the crowded party primary after the novice candidate impressed him with his performance in Republican debates, a skill that would be crucial if he faces off against Vice President Kamala Harris.

Trump has turned his VP selection into a public contest, with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott also among those vying to be his running mate.

Critics call Vance a political opportunist and “charlatan,” noting he once was a “never Trumper.” He made comments in 2016 and 2017 such as saying Trump is “noxious and is leading the White working class to a very dark place.” Vance has said he came to support Trump based on his policies in office, especially his stance against China on trade.

“People ask me what changed, and it’s pretty simple: at the time, I didn’t believe that a Democrat from New York would be able to accomplish much,” Vance said in a 2021 letter to Ohio Republican Party state central committee members. “I was wrong.”

Vance also hasn’t had many legislative achievements in his short Senate career. But his supporters point out neither did President Barack Obama before he won the White House and say it’s a positive to be outside the Washington establishment.

It’s the energy and ability Vance brings to promoting Trump’s cause that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee cares most about anyway.

First to Courthouse

He distinguished himself from rivals on the vice presidential shortlist by being the first to travel up to New York to stand with Trump during his criminal trial.

Vance also tapped his Silicon Valley connections to raise money for Trump to make up for a funding deficit against President Joe Biden. That included working relationships to help arrange a major San Francisco fundraiser this month led by tech investors David Sacks and Chamath Palihapitiya, co-hosts of the influential All-In podcast.

“There isn’t anyone out there who I think would be more loyal to my father and his agenda,” Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement, calling Vance “an all-star for the America First movement” and lauding him for “being able to deliver an effective message on the campaign trail and in front of TV cameras.”

Nominating Vance would be a break from the traditional electoral formula of choosing a running mate to provide ideological balance or bolster the candidate with a wary constituency, as was the case when twice-divorced, previously pro-abortion rights Trump chose Mike Pence in 2016 to boost his credibility with evangelicals.

Instead, Trump would be doubling down on populism if he teamed up with Vance, much as Bill Clinton’s choice to run with fellow Southern moderate Al Gore in 1992 was a proof point of the Democrat’s determination to steer his party toward a centrist course.

Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a friend of Vance’s, said the Ohio senator is already the leading political figure arguing for a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy and is “clearly” the potential running mate most ideologically in tune with Trump.

Vance rose to fame with the 2016 release of his best-selling memoir about his chaotic childhood as the son of a drug-addicted single mother moving from boyfriend to boyfriend in an economically struggling steel town in southwest Ohio. The book offered vivid explanation of the anger and despair of many working-class Americans attracted to Trump, and Netflix adapted the story into a movie.

After working in venture capital at firms associated with tech billionaires Peter Thiel and Steve Case, Vance ran for the Senate with $15 million in support from Thiel, the most prominent tech-industry donor to the Trump 2016 campaign. Ohio voted overwhelmingly for Trump both times he ran for president.

Challenging Party Establishment

Vance appeals to the working-class voters who may previously have been Democrats but shifted parties to back Trump, said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. Vance’s upbringing helps him to connect to the economic struggles of those voters in the crucial Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, he said.

“He literally wrote the book on this moment in history,” Triantafilou said.

Republican Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas called Vance “a rising superstar” who is able to reach out to younger voters and suburban women in a way “maybe that somebody with gray hair wouldn’t quite as effectively.”

Vance has gone up against his party and Wall Street by working with Democrats Sherrod Brown on seeking stronger safety regulations for railroads after the 2023 disaster in East Palestine, Ohio; Elizabeth Warren and Brown on clawing back the pay of bank executives whose institutions fail; and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin on forcing more competition in the credit card industry.

The Ohio senator has been perhaps the loudest opponent in the Senate of aiding Ukraine in its war with Russia, putting him at odds with congressional party leaders and Republicans’ powerful strong-defense wing.

Vance hasn’t won any of those fights. His railroad and credit card competition bills are stalled amid establishment Republican opposition, and military aid to Ukraine ultimately was approved.

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a supporter of Ukraine, praised Vance as a bright and personable senator who wouldn’t be divisive within the ideologically fractious party.

“He’s a reasonable guy, he’s got a great sense of humor,” Tillis said.

Vance supporters and Trump allies say the freshman senator meets the criteria Trump is considering in running mate, including being able to attack Biden in mainstream media, raise money, perform well in debates, and carry on Trump’s legacy.

But Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee and frequent Trump critic, said while Vance is intelligent and “does a good job of connecting with the populist base of the Republican Party,” that could discourage Trump from picking him.

“His biggest drawback in President Trump’s mind would be the fear that he will outshine Donald Trump, because he’s smarter, he’s more articulate, he’s more solid on policy,” Romney said. “Donald Trump would find that difficult — to have the spotlight on anyone other than himself.”

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.