J.D. Vance tries to trick the Trump base into eating their vegetables

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JD Vance.
JD Vance. Illustrated | AP Images, Getty Images, iStock

A new internal poll showed Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance closing to within single digits of frontrunner Josh Mandel in Ohio's Republican primary to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R) next year. The survey by Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who has done work for former President Donald Trump, found Vance with 16 percent of the vote to Mandel's 19 percent.

It would be nice to see whether more neutral numbers bear this out, but the Ohio Senate race is an interesting window into the GOP future. A conventional Midwestern Republican who had an uneasy relationship with Trump is voluntarily giving up his seat while the race to replace him has become a contest to pledge fealty to the former president.

Yet Mandel and Vance have different approaches to Trumpism. Mandel largely yells red meat to the base as loudly and crassly as he can, and so far this has kept him ahead of the pack. Vance has moved more in this direction too, becoming trollier on Twitter and in person than his previous mild-mannered personae and repudiating his own Trump skepticism of old. But Vance has also always been animated by the idea that the party should pursue policies helpful to working families, whether through tighter labor markets through tough immigration enforcement, deviations from free trade and a willingness to use the tax code in ways much less neutral than old-school supply-siders and libertarians might prefer.

The question has always been whether Trump won because he said what Republican voters wanted to hear louder and less apologetically than other GOP leaders — or whether it was because he said some things that were different from what Republican politicians have been saying since Ronald Reagan was president. Mandel of the Judeo-Christian revolution fame is clearly betting on the former. Vance is apparently hoping it's a little of both, that Twitter snark that is the dessert which helps a pugilistic base eat their vegetables of serious populism and nationalism.

Others will test these theories in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, but that contest is complicated by the fact that Trump himself is still lurking in the background. Is Trumpism merely primal scream therapy for a dispirited GOP rank-and-file and its new working-class allies, or is it a set of debatable solutions too? As Ohio goes, perhaps so goes the nation.

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