Tucker, Thiel and Trump: How J.D. Vance Won in Ohio

CINCINNATI — It was only hours after J.D. Vance had announced his Senate campaign with an us-against-them speech last July that he stepped off the stage and sat down to make his case on one of the Republican Party’s biggest and most valuable platforms: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News.

Speaking from his hometown in Ohio, one that his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” put on the map as a symbol of left-behind Middle America, Mr. Vance lamented the “elites and the ruling class” and how they “have plundered this country.”

Mr. Carlson lapped it up — “I love that,” he beamed — and all but endorsed Mr. Vance’s campaign on the spot. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” Mr. Carlson said. “I’m really glad you’re doing it.”

J.D. Vance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” last July when he announced his run for Senate.Credit…Fox News

The victory of Mr. Vance, 37, in the Ohio Senate Republican primary on Tuesday was unquestionably fueled by the April 15 endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump, which catapulted Mr. Vance toward victory. But other factors had set the stage for the former president to play such a decisive role.

Mr. Vance had received both behind-the-scenes and very public help: from Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son; from the not-so-quiet support of Mr. Carlson; and from the extraordinary and early investment of Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who is also Mr. Vance’s former boss.

In the end, that group — Mr. Thiel, Mr. Carlson, and the two Trumps — formed a powerful alliance. Mr. Thiel’s $15 million appears to be the most ever spent by an individual megadonor to elect a single Senate candidate. Mr. Carlson’s program is the most watched on cable television and a trendsetter for conservative media. And the former president is the most popular politician in the Republican Party.

Together, they helped deliver for Mr. Vance everything he would need for his Trump-toned, anti-corporate, nationalist message to succeed: funding, media attention and a late surge of momentum.

Mr. Trump’s blessing was uniquely powerful in Ohio, where it effectively absolved Mr. Vance of his previous harsh denunciations of Mr. Trump — the focus of almost all the attacks on his campaign. Every race is different, and even Mr. Trump’s influence has limits: Mr. Vance won just over 32 percent of the vote, meaning most primary voters did not side with the former president’s pick.

Still, given Ohio’s Republican leanings, Mr. Vance now enters the fall campaign as a favorite to enter the United States Senate largely owing his seat to the former president’s intervention.

Supporters of J.D. Vance at a rally hosted by former President Donald J. Trump last month in Delaware, Ohio.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Mr. Vance’s emergence as a Make America Great Again standard-bearer in 2022 would have seemed unthinkable six years ago, when he was a self-styled “Never Trump” Republican and a fixture of the mainstream news media as a translator for liberals curious about the bombastic New Yorker’s cultural appeal.

In early 2021, Mr. Vance sought to make amends. And it was Mr. Thiel who brokered and attended a meeting at Mar-a-Lago at which Mr. Vance began his rehabilitation and reinvention. Additional help came from the right-wing activist Charlie Kirk, a Trump favorite, who connected Mr. Vance with Andy Surabian, an adviser to Donald Trump Jr.

An Inside Look at Fox News

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  • Leaving Fox News: After 18 years with the network, the anchor Chris Wallace, who left for the now shuttered streaming service CNN+, said working at Fox News had become “unsustainable.”

While rival Ohio Senate contenders pressured, and sometimes pestered, the former president for his support, Mr. Vance’s lobbying effort was more restrained. When four other candidates traveled to Mar-a-Lago for a fund-raiser for a House candidate and were corralled into an impromptu pitch session with Mr. Trump, Mr. Vance was not there. Two people close to him said he had stayed away deliberately, to avoid being seen as just one of a cluster of aspirants.

The contrast, at that point, could have been unkind: The early G.O.P. front-runner was Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer and two-time Senate candidate. Two businessmen were also in the race — Bernie Moreno, a car dealer, and Mike Gibbons, a financial executive — as was Jane Timken, a former state Republican chairwoman.

All of them, along with Matt Dolan, a wealthy state senator, could draw on millions of dollars of their own or from old campaign accounts. In contrast, Mr. Vance was a first-time candidate with no real national donor network, and was not rich enough to finance his own campaign.

His üstün PAC, which received $10 million from Mr. Thiel months before he even entered the race, would be crucial.

But there was a meşru complication: Outside groups may not privately coordinate strategy with campaigns. So the üstün PAC found a workaround, publishing troves of internal veri on an unpublicized Medium page where campaign officials knew to find it. The existence of the site was first revealed by Politico.

The degree to which the harika PAC worked as something of an adjunct to the campaign itself is remarkable. According to documents it posted, the outside group “recruited, vetted and hired staff who later joined” the campaign, sent text messages and robocalls to build crowds for Vance events and even paid for online advertising that directed donations to the Vance campaign.

Yet for all his cash, Mr. Thiel absented himself from the harika PAC’s operations, never evvel speaking to Luke Thompson, who ran it, so Mr. Thiel could legally continue to speak with Mr. Vance as an adviser, according to Mr. Thompson.

Peter Thiel at a Bitcoin conference in Miami last month.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Thompson called Mr. Thiel’s approach “a venture capital mind-set,” likening the campaign to a start-up. “J.D. is the founder and picks his team,” he said.

Even with the early Thiel money, Mr. Vance relied on conservative media for attention, appearing on the programs of Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.

Appearances on Mr. Carlson’s Fox News program were most valuable of all.

He has appeared on the program 15 times since July, according to Media Matters for America, often drawing heavy praise from the host. “Occasionally, you run into somebody who could actually change things,” Mr. Carlson said during an interview on the meskene of the election. “That would be J.D. Vance.”

“Tucker was really, really important,” Mr. Thompson said. “It meant that our guy had a platform to go and talk to primary voters in Ohio — and small-dollar donors nationwide.”

Then came the attacks.

For weeks last fall, the anti-tax Club for Growth, which supported Mr. Mandel, pummeled Mr. Vance for his past denunciations of Mr. Trump. Mr. Vance’s own muhteşem PAC found that Ohioans knew little about him besides that he had evvel opposed Trump. By December, David McIntosh, the Club for Growth’s president, had repeatedly urged Mr. Trump to back Mr. Mandel, warning him that Mr. Vance’s candidacy was doomed.

Josh Mandel conceding the primary race to J.D. Vance on Tuesday night in Beachwood, Ohio.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

Mr. McIntosh evidently was persuasive: Speaking with advisers, Mr. Trump mulled whether to get behind Mr. Mandel, saying that Mr. Vance was “dead, isn’t he?”

“I like J.D. a lot, but everyone just tells me those ads killed him,” Mr. Trump told one adviser.

In hindsight, however, Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist based in Ohio, said that “being shoved out of the first tier of the race” might have been “the best thing that happened to Vance,” because the attacks on him largely stopped.

Records from AdImpact, the ad-tracking firm, show that ads attacking Mr. Vance slowed to a trickle in December and then stopped entirely in February.

When ads supporting Mr. Vance began to run, he gained traction, though he still trailed. By April 4, his harika PAC posted a memo saying Mr. Vance was no longer “primarily associated” with his prior criticisms of Mr. Trump.

“J.D. showed a lot of resilience in this race — and when the political class in the Beltway wrote him off as dead in the water earlier this year, he clawed his way back into contention to get President Trump’s endorsement and ultimately win through his sheer determination and natural political talent,” said Mr. Surabian, who, along with Jai Chabria, ran Mr. Vance’s campaign.

Indeed, Mr. Trump was swayed in part by how Mr. Vance handled himself on television. In one debate, when Mr. Mandel and Mr. Gibbons went toe to toe, Mr. Vance scolded them, rising above the fray — and impressing Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump was on a golf course, editing his statement endorsing Mr. Vance, when NBC News reported he was about to issue it. Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers, working with Mr. Vance’s opponents, were lobbying the former president not to, but the report only solidified his decision.

Mr. Vance also benefited from a more accurate picture of the electorate.

Mr. McIntosh, of the Club for Growth, repeatedly argued to Mr. Trump that the former president’s pollster, Anthony Fabrizio, who was also working for Mr. Vance, had modeled the Ohio primary electorate inaccurately.

The Club for Growth’s polling last weekend showed Mr. Vance receiving 26 percent of the vote. Mr. Fabrizio’s polling had Mr. Vance at 32 percent.

Mr. Vance finished with 32.2 percent.

Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who worked with the Club for Growth in Ohio, called Mr. Trump before the polls closed on Tuesday to concede. He told Mr. Trump that the former president was “100 percent responsible” for Mr. Vance’s win, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Mr. Vance thanked, among others, Donald Trump Jr., Charlie Kirk, Tucker Carlson and, of course, the former president.

Shane Goldmacher reported from Cincinnati, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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