J.D. Vance, author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ poised for Senate run, crusade against ‘woke’ America

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Author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance is preparing to run for a Senate seat in Ohio because, he says, conservatives need to stop buckling to Democrats and “woke” business leaders.

Conservatives haven’t just lost Congress and the White House. Liberals gained nearly all the levers of power in the U.S., from Wall Street and Big Tech to academia and the media, Mr. Vance says.

“The challenge confronting American conservatives is that we have lost every major powerful institution in the country, except for maybe churches and religious institutions, which of course are weaker now than they’ve ever been,” Mr. Vance said recently on The Federalist Radio Hour. “We’ve lost big business. We’ve lost finance. We’ve lost the culture.”

Brimming with contempt for America’s “technology oligarchy,” Mr. Vance said he sees a political revolution as the only answer to restoring conservative principles. He said there’s no point in Republicans seeking accommodation with Democrats and increasingly “woke” corporate CEOs on public policy.

“I don’t think there’s sort of a compromise that we’re going to come with the people who currently actually control the country,” he said. “Unless we overthrow them in some way, we’re going to keep losing.”

Mr. Vance, 36, is best known as the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” the best-selling memoir about his youth in eastern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio. He has formed an exploratory committee to consider a bid in 2022 for the Senate seat that’s being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

He’s being aided by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who has donated $10 million to the super PAC Protect Ohio Values, which was formed for Mr. Vance‘s expected Senate bid.

“You can never underestimate someone who has a $10 million Super PAC behind him,” said Ohio Republican strategist Mark Weaver, who has worked with Mr. Portman. “That gives him instant credibility, and he’ll be able to reach a lot of Republican primary voters with that money.”

After high school, Mr. Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq. His wife, Usha, was his classmate at Yale Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. She also clerked for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh when he was a circuit court judge.

Mr. Vance, who declined through a representative to be interviewed for this article, has said he’ll make an announcement about the Senate race by early July. But he sounds like he’s already made up his mind.

Conservative Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas have been giving him advice. And Mr. Vance has been traveling around Ohio, making contacts with grassroots groups. A onetime critic of Donald Trump, he reportedly has met with the former president in Florida.

“I definitely am interested in doing it,” Mr. Vance said on the radio show. “Right now the issues I wake up thinking about as a private citizen are almost all federal questions.”

Chief among those challenges, he said, is “woke capital” — the profit-driven practice of corporations weighing in on public policy, increasingly on the left’s side of issues.

“Those of us on the right need to wake up to what’s really going on,” Mr. Vance said in a speech on May 18 at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. “The biggest businesses, the most powerful institutions, the most powerful banks in this country have aligned themselves against us.”

He singled out Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ support for Black Lives Matter during last year’s riots and protests in many U.S. cities over racial injustice. Amazon issued a statement of support for BLM and donated $10 million to various organizations to end the “inequitable and brutal treatment of Black and African Americans.”

“Woke capital is when the companies and businesses are more invested in a movement like BLM than traditional American principles,” Mr. Vance said at Claremont. “Who benefits most when small businesses on Main Street are destroyed [in a riot]? Who wants to see their competitors unable to deliver goods and services to people, so that you get it delivered in your brown Amazon box — Jeff Bezos. There is a direct connection between ‘woke capital’ and the plunder that’s happening in our society today. The people who are invested in destroying America via our corporate class are also getting rich from it.”

Like Mr. Hawley and other conservatives, Mr. Vance is taking aim at Big Tech, Ivy League endowments and woke nonprofits, saying they should be taxed. He has called Harvard University’s endowment, reported at $41.9 billion in 2020, “a woke social-justice hedge fund.”

“We’ve given that endowment more power,” he said of its tax-free status. “It’s ammunition for our enemies. We can’t let them have it. It’s that simple. If you’re fighting American values, the conservative movement should be about reducing your power and destroying you, if necessary. If you cannot make them pay, you are accepting defeat. We’re never going to beat them unless we go after them.”

He scoffs at congressional Republicans who have hauled in Big Tech executives for hostile questioning at hearings but don’t ultimately address bias against conservatives.

“It’s not enough to tell Google, ‘You’re being bad,’” Mr. Vance said. “Clearly, they don’t stop being bad. We have to punish them for being bad. If they’re going to keep on fighting against us, then we have to fight against them. I’m not in this to lose, I’m in this to win.”

Mr. Weaver said attacking Big Tech is a smart strategy for winning over GOP primary voters in Ohio.

“There’s a palpable anger in the Republican base at far-left tech czars using their platforms to silence conservatives,” he said. “If J.D. Vance can tap that, it could be an effective message for him.”

Those running for the GOP nomination in Ohio include former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, former state Republican Party chair Jane Timken, and businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons. Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan also has announced his candidacy.

Mr. Vance would be a first-time candidate, and it’s not known how well he would fare in retail politics. He skipped the Ohio Political Summit in Strongsville on May 15, as did several other candidates who initially agreed to attend.

Among the speakers at the summit were conservative author Candace Owens and embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who referred obliquely to an ongoing federal sex-trafficking investigation by telling the audience, “I’m being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors.”

Asked if she was disappointed that Mr. Vance didn’t attend, Strongsville GOP Chairwoman Shannon Burns replied in an email, “I don’t believe the energized crowd of 700-plus Republican primary voters at The Ohio Political Summit were disappointed at all because they came together for only one purpose — to hear from conservative leaders that were willing to take their tough questions and demonstrate that they will fight for them in Columbus and in Washington D.C., and that’s exactly what they saw!”

“I would be disappointed if I were one of the candidates who missed that opportunity,” she said.

Mr. Weaver said there’s an assumption that Mr. Vance will relate to voters of all backgrounds because he grew up in Appalachia.

“That remains to be seen,” he said. “The circles he runs in [now] are a far, far cry from county fairs in southeastern Ohio. And he’ll say, ‘Did you read my book?’ But that [Appalachian childhood] was a long time ago. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can connect with Republican primary voters in rural Ohio.”

Mr. Vance cites a bond he’s developed with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whom he met at an event sponsored by J.P. Morgan.

“Ever since then, I have thought to myself, ‘The person who is most challenging to the world view of people who I think are harming communities like mine is Tucker,’” he told the Federalist radio hosts.

In 2016 and 2017, Mr. Vance criticized Mr. Trump.

“I can’t stomach Trump,” he told NPR in 2016. “I think that he’s noxious and is leading the White working class to a very dark place.”

In 2020, Mr. Vance voted for Mr. Trump. He said he came to realize, by discussing his book, that liberal elites only accepted him if he was criticizing the people they hated, such as Mr. Trump and Mr. Carlson.

“It was just sort of a choice — I’m going to be on the side of the people that I came from, or I’m going to be on the side of this sort of ‘board of elites’ that are trying to get me to assimilate into them. And my choice was, I’m going to continue to be loyal to the people who made me who I was.”

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