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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in New York

Trump endorses Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance in Ohio Republican primaries

Vance speaks to reporters following a debate with other Republicans in March 2022.
Vance speaks to reporters following a debate with other Republicans in March 2022. Photograph: Paul Vernon/AP

Donald Trump has picked a side in the contentious Republican primary for US Senate in Ohio, backing JD Vance, the bestselling author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

In doing so on Friday, the former president chose to forgive Vance’s previous opposition to him and caustic comments about Trump.

Predicting a midterm “landslide for Republicans that will serve as a devastating rebuke of the failures of Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats”, Trump said: “In the great state of Ohio, the candidate most qualified and ready to win in November is JD Vance.

“We cannot play games. It is all about winning!”

Vance is not in a winning position in polls of the Ohio field. According to the average on Friday, Josh Mandel held a 1.7-point lead over Mike Gibbons, with Vance in third. Polling day is 3 May.

This week, as reports of an imminent endorsement circulated, Ohio Republicans were reported to have called on Trump not to back any candidate. Citing a draft of a letter to Trump, the Associated Press said the GOP figures pointed to Vance’s past statements.

“We know there are many qualified candidates in this race who have stood up for the ‘America First’ agenda over the years and have carried the Trump mantle over the years, again with the notable exception of JD Vance,” the letter said.

“While we were working hard in Ohio to support you and Make America Great Again, JD Vance was actively working against your candidacy.”

The letter pointed to Vance saying he might support Hillary Clinton in 2016 and comparing Trump to “another opioid”.

Hillbilly Elegy, which was made into a film released in 2020, deals with growing up in a part of America hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

Writing for the Guardian in 2016, Sarah Smarsh said: “A successful attorney who had a precariously middle-class upbringing in an Ohio steel town, Vance wrote of the chaos that can haunt a family with generational memory of deep poverty.

“A conservative who says he won’t vote for Trump, Vance speculates about why working-class whites will: cultural anxiety that arises when opioid overdose kills your friends and the political establishment has proven it will throw you under the bus.”

Vance, also a former US Marine and a venture capitalist, has said he regrets his comments about Trump.

“Like a lot of people, I criticized Trump back in 2016,” he told Fox News last year. “And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy.”

In his endorsement, Trump said: “Like some others, JD Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades.

“He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race. The Democrats will be spending many millions of dollars but the good news is that they have a defective candidate who ran for president and garnered exactly zero percent in the polls. The bottom line is, we must have a Republican victory in Ohio.”

Vance said he was “incredibly honored to have President Trump’s support”, adding: “He was an incredible fighter for hard working Americans in the White House, he will be again, and I’ll fight for the America First agenda in the Senate.”

The Democrat Trump referred to is Tim Ryan, a congressman who mounted a short-lived run for the presidential nomination in 2020.

On Friday, Ryan said: “It’s official. Donald Trump just called me ‘dangerous’ to Republicans in a ‘tough race’ and threw his support behind JD Vance. Vance is a Silicon Valley elitist and a phony, and we’ll beat him come November.”

Seeking donations, Ryan added: “We’re beating JD Vance in the polls by one point. But we’re expecting this endorsement to bring a new wave of outside money and attacks.”

Trump’s endorsements are under scrutiny, as observers seek to determine the strength of his hold on the Republican party ahead of a likely third White House run.

Last week Trump endorsed in the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania, choosing Mehmet Oz, a doctor made famous on daytime TV, over David McCormick, a candidate favored by many Republican insiders.

The Republican primary in Ohio has become increasingly heated. In a debate earlier this month, Mandel and Gibbons physically threatened each other on stage.

Vance remarked: “It was embarrassing, especially for those involved. I think it was embarrassing for the whole party.”

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