In a big victory for former President Donald Trump, and an even bigger one for those on the right pushing a "conservative realignment" fusing economic populism and foreign policy restraint with social conservatism, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance won the Republican nomination for Senate in Ohio.
Vance was no sure bet to win this primary when Trump endorsed him. The ex-president was a difference-maker in the contest, even though Vance's "Are you a racist?" immigration ad clearly played a role too. But it's also the first big win for billionaire Peter Thiel and the MAGA smart set who would like to see a GOP that is less libertarian in economics, less neoconservative in foreign policy, and as socially conservative as ever. These Republicans have an ally in Donald Trump Jr., perhaps even more than the father.
Given the political conditions in Ohio, Vance would have to be favored in the general election, even if Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan has some populist plays of his own. In defeating candidates like former Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, Vance not only had to embrace Trump. He also had to compete with Mandel's lower-brow-than-Hillbilly-Elegy appeal to the base. It worked, but at the cost of some admirers.
Maybe that doesn't matter. Surely, it's a small price to pay for a Senate seat and a revamped Republican Party. It could also serve as a test case for a winning strategy in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, in which Trump could yet be a contender.
Nevertheless, Vance was conciliatory in his victory speech. He knows he will face a battery of Democratic attack ads no matter what the polls say in this race. Republicans need to retain this Senate seat to win back the majority. Trump needs Vance to keep winning because some of his endorsements seem less likely to pan out.
Like Trump, Vance won a plurality (in this instance, about a third of the vote) en route to the nomination. But the end result is the same: a self-styled America First candidate who is not beholden to the Republican establishment in a must-win race for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. That's worth a few J.D. Mandel jokes about the party's titular leader botching his name.