Hillbilly Elegy Writer Won't Seek Office

J.D. Vance, whose memoir of rural white resentment helped explain Trump’s rise, seriously considered a bid for U.S. Senate in his home state of Ohio.

Lloyd Bishop / NBC

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, strongly considered seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Ohio next year, but has decided against a run, he said Thurdsay.

Vance, whose book describes his drug-addicted mother and absentee father in unsparing detail, concluded a run for office would put too much strain on his young family. His wife, Usha, a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, recently gave birth to their first child.

“I felt like I had to take a serious look at it because I care about the direction of the party, and people I respect encouraged me to run,” Vance told me. “But it would have been an objectively bad call for my family.”

A Marine Corps veteran and Yale Law School graduate, Vance, 33, voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin over President Trump. But his intensely personal account of the resentment and isolation of poor, white Americans was seen as a window into the cultural forces that helped propel Trump in Appalachia.

The Washington Post called him “the Rust Belt anger translator.” Hillary Clinton cites him in her new memoir. The book, subtitled “a memoir of a family and a culture in crisis,” has sold more than a million copies since its release and has spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list. Some Democrats charge that the book puts too much blame on the poor for their choices and is overly dismissive of government-based solutions.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is seeking a third term in 2018. His main Republican challenger at this point is Josh Mandel, the state treasurer, who ran a losing campaign against Brown in 2012. But Republicans in the state are leery of Mandel’s retread bid, particularly in a year that could be difficult for the GOP. Mandel’s reputation has been dented by scandals and inflammatory statements, such as when the candidate, who is Jewish, blasted the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing figures it associated with the white nationalist “alt-right” movement.

Vance had been working for the Trump-supporting Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel before moving to Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year to found a nonprofit. “It was an effort to do something with the momentum I had from the book and start thinking about solutions,” he said. His interest in policy issues led him to Jai Chabria, a former political adviser to Ohio Governor John Kasich, who helped introduce him to local and national political players and donors.

Vance said he began to seriously consider becoming a candidate when he saw the way his message resonated with both the elite and grass roots of the GOP. “I’m a conservative, but I think the party has really lost touch with working- and middle-class Americans,” he told me. In speeches to groups as varied as the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the Lucas County Republican Party, in Toledo, “this thunderous critique of Republicans for being the party of the rich was surprisingly getting a lot of applause, even in rooms full of rich people. That made me think I should take [running] more seriously.”

Chabria, the political consultant, said audiences were “spellbound” by the combination of Vance’s timely message and personal charisma, even though many had no idea who he was. “I haven’t seen a reaction like that, to someone that people didn’t know, ever,” he said.

Local and national donors expressed enthusiasm. Vance commissioned a poll that tested his viability in the Republican primaries for both governor and Senate. He was particularly concerned that his opposition to Trump would turn off base GOP voters. But the poll led him to conclude that that would not pose a significant problem and that he would be a viable candidate, particularly in the Senate race. “Based on the polling we had done and the backing we had, it was very clear that J.D. would have been the Republican nominee,” a person familiar with Vance’s decision told me.

A Vance candidacy would have posed an intriguing test of a new sort of Republican populism, one that combined Trump’s critique of the GOP elite with the reformist vision of conservative thinkers like Yuval Levin (and without Trump’s divisive rhetoric). In a recent New York Times op-ed, Vance argued that Republicans must be willing to financially support Americans who would lose their health insurance in a repeal or reform of Obamacare.

But the president’s unpopularity and erratic governing style make it a difficult time to be an idealistic young Republican prospect, even in a state that went for Trump by eight points. For now, Vance will occupy himself with his work as a writer and commentator; an investment project with the AOL co-founder Steve Case; his nascent nonprofit; and his family.

“You can’t sacrifice your family’s happiness to run for political office,” Vance told me. “If you’re willing to do that, you don’t belong in elected office and you don't deserve your family.”

Though Vance decided the time wasn’t ripe, Chabria is convinced he has a future in politics. “I have never seen someone that has as much upside as he does,” Chabria told me. “I know he’s going to be relevant in a lot of different ways, because the party needs people like him.”