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Hillbilly Elegy writer J.D. Vance starts running for the Republican Senate in Ohio

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist known for Hillbilly Elegy, his best-selling memoir of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains and the industrial Midwest, has made it to the overcrowded Ohio Senate primaries.

“We need a new policy for a new generation,” said Vance, 36, when he launched his campaign Thursday night at a steel tube factory here in his hometown. “The old way of doing things doesn’t work.”

Vance’s pitch could be the most disruptive development to date in a Republican primary, already marked by candidates’ enthusiasm to win over former President Donald Trump and his supporters. The seat expires in 2020, as Republican Sen. Rob Portman is not seeking another term.

While he never ran for public office and is not particularly well known in Ohio, Vance has a national profile thanks to his book and the Oscar-nominated film adapted from him, giving him unique access to free media coverage, elite donors and far-right activists. Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and a former Facebook investor who backed Trump in 2016, donated $ 10 million to a super PAC that was formed earlier this year to promote Vance as a Senate candidate.

That’s a considerable amount of money to pay for a career in Ohio at this early stage, and it’s an amount that can help Vance’s allies get him into major polls quickly. And the source of the money, a big tech entrepreneur, is ironic for someone who, through his provocative Twitter presence, has criticized big tech for being in league with established Republicans.

At Vance’s Thursday event, guests held up freshly printed posters calling him a “conservative outsider.” He shared stories familiar to his readers and delivered a red meat speech that pointed to coronavirus restrictions and included his attacks on big technology. Specifically, he alluded to how social media, including Facebook, has banned Trump.

“It’s time to stop complaining about big technology,” said Vance, who is seeking to replace Republican Rob Portman, who will no longer run in 2022. “It’s time to do something about it.”

The campaign is the culmination of a powerful transformation in the five years since his book was published, which coincided with Trump’s rise to the Republican Party and the march to the presidency that harnessed the current spirit of the white working class.

Hillbilly Elegy captured Vance’s childhood between rural Kentucky and Middletown, from his mother’s drug addiction and family poverty to the decline of manufacturing in southwestern Ohio. Later, Vance served in the Marine Corps and graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

In interviews in 2016 to promote his memoir, Vance was open about his dislike of Trump and voted for the independent Evan McMullin that year. “I can’t stand Trump,” he told NPR in an August 2016 quote that his Republican rivals turned against him in anticipation of his entry into the race.

In an interview with Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer in December, Vance admitted that Trump had “diagnosed very real problems” but was skeptical that he “had a lot of positive solutions.” He also criticized Trump for “using rhetoric that is not in the best interest of the party or the country.”

Establishment Republicans, including those affiliated with John Kasich, a Trump critic who was governor of Ohio at the time, courted Vance to run for Senate in 2018, but he passed.

Vance now has a different image. He has deleted old tweets, some of which were directly critical of Trump, and is using his Twitter account to position himself as the leading voice in culture wars while fueling institutional mistrust fueled by the former president and his allies.

Last week he struck out General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for advocating the study of critical racial theory. “Personally, I want American generals to read less about ‘white anger’ (whatever it is) and more about ‘not losing wars,'” he wrote.

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