The video has been dissected across the political world. Vance, who was sitting to Mandel’s left in Gahanna, has since said on the stump that before the clash he saw his rival looking at papers with written instructions. “The whole thing was staged!” Vance later said. The Mandel campaign, somewhat unexpectedly, claimed that “pussy” had come out of Gibbons’s mouth, rather than Mandel’s. But the internal view of the Mandel campaign seemed to be that the incident, though perhaps not ideally executed, had been good for business. I asked a close adviser to Mandel where he saw Trump’s influence on the race—how the former President had changed the way these Ohio Republicans operated. “It’s a great question, man,” the operative said. “I think the style, right? Certainly. Trump allowed for people to be a little more aggressive.” The best thing to come out of the Trump campaigns for the Party, he said, was a model of blue-collar outreach. Beyond that, though, he saw continuities with the pre-Trump Party. “At the end of the day, you got five candidates who are going to stand up there and say Joe Biden is driving the economy into the ground.”
As recently as the late Obama years, the natural way to see Ohio’s role in national politics was as a keystone, a place balanced delicately between Democrats and Republicans, organized labor and small-business people, cities and rural areas. In 2016, when the political analyst Kyle Kondik published a study of the state’s voting history, he titled it “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.” Kondik’s day job is as an election forecaster at the University of Virginia Center for Politics; he recently estimated that after the coming midterm elections Republicans could outnumber Democrats in Ohio’s U.S. House delegation thirteen to two. For all the talk of Rust Belt decline and the opioid crisis, Ohio hasn’t exactly fallen apart economically: its unemployment rate is 4.2 per cent, lower than that in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and its median household income ranks about thirty-fifth nationally. Columbus, where the suburbs are growing bluer, is thriving. The recent shift in Ohio may be less an example of Rust Belt suffering than of the relentless demographic efficiency of modern culture-war politics. Compared with national averages, Kondik pointed out to me, Ohio is “a little whiter, a little older, a little lower proportion of people with college degrees. And those are the things that organize politics.”
Tellingly, the operatives and patrons behind the Ohio campaigns bring national brands with them. Mandel hired Axiom, and notched an endorsement from Cruz. Gibbons hired Doug Stafford, a longtime Rand Paul strategist who runs RANDPAC; Paul endorsed Gibbons. Vance shares the backing of the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who has donated ten million dollars to an outside group funding his campaign, with Josh Hawley, of Missouri, the lone senator to support him. Jane Timken, who served as the state Party chair during Trump’s Presidency, often working to heal divisions between pro- and anti-Trump factions, took the game one step further in her own campaign. Instead of hiring operatives close to major Party figures, she hired the figures themselves. Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski became not only paid strategists but also appeared on the stump on her behalf. If this was an effort to persuade Trump to endorse her, or his supporters to flock to her banner, it hasn’t worked. Last week, the Timken campaign released an internal poll showing her trailing Gibbons by five points and Mandel by one, figures that other pollsters regarded as optimistic. An Ohio political operative texted me, “Why does everyone brag about being third in this race?”
On Monday afternoon, I met up with the Vance campaign at a town hall inside a stylish little pop-up space in Troy—an exposed-brick wall, some understated Vance signs out front, a dozen and a half people inside. These days, Vance has a brown beard, a full belly, and a tendency to squint thoughtfully when he is considering a question. The only laugh line I heard him try was to cite Trump calling the Biden press secretary Jen Psaki “the woman with the really beautiful red hair.” Otherwise, he worked to offset the slightly academic mien with blunt speech. “Our idiot leaders decided to do this to us,” he told the small crowd in Troy. “I hate to use that term, and sometimes it’s important to be direct about what’s going on.”
If Trump’s effect on the Republican Party was simply to coarsen it, then progressives might have grimaced and taken it. But in Trump’s wake the Party has been embracing new thinkers, too. The national interest in Vance only partly stems from how much of his rise took place within the media’s own world: a best-selling book made after his Yale Law School professor introduced him to a literary agent, a film adaptation directed by Ron Howard. It is also that Vance’s quarrel is not just with the Democratic Party but with liberalism writ large.
In Troy, his emphasis turned out to be, as he put it, “the corruption in the F.B.I., the corruption in our federal government, the corruption of the Party.” Praising Trump, Vance said, “He revealed a corruption in our country that at least to my eyes was completely hidden.”
As examples, he mentioned excesses that he had identified in the F.B.I.’s pursuit of intelligence during the Trump impeachment investigations, and in the prosecution of four right-wingers who allegedly plotted to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan. (Jurors acquitted two of the defendants and deadlocked on the other two.) “Turns out the F.B.I. was involved in that kidnapping,” Vance said. He emphasized private actors, too: “Why did the media conspire with the technology companies, with some of our own intelligence agencies, to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story?”
Near the end of the town hall, a pattern developed in which a member of the audience raised a topic and asked whether there was something there that deserved investigating. How did Vance feel about mandatory vaccination? Very against, but he also saw a troubling precedent: “We’re going to have breathalyzers on our phone, where if you’ve had three or four drinks a week you’re not allowed to go and work a normal job in this country.” Why was it that Anthony Fauci had pushed the vaccines so hard? Vance brought up the tax returns that elected officials have to submit, and said, “You know whose financial information I’d like to look at is Fauci’s. All right, you wonder, does this guy have any stake in some of these companies? Has he ever been paid for a consulting gig?”
Much ink has been spilled worrying whether Vance has changed. To my ear, it sounded like he had, and not just in the more incendiary, culture-war tone that he uses on Twitter and in his ads. Once, Vance had voiced a familiar opposition to the economic actors that had shipped Ohio’s jobs overseas, stressing families and the devastation of communities. Now it sounded as if that message had metastasized, so that the allegation of “corruption” could be applied to almost any institution at all.
On Friday, Trump officially endorsed Vance—which has the potential to radically transform the race. Vance’s struggles in the polling thus far have had little to do with his prospects as a conservative oracle. The trouble is with the more basic elements of campaigning: he often fails to draw clear distinctions between himself and his opponents, or to find ways to pivot when he is criticized. More damaging is that, a year into his campaign, he still cannot give a convincing answer to the main line of attack against him. In the fall, the Club for Growth, which has endorsed Mandel, spent more than a million dollars on an ad campaign emphasizing Vance’s opposition to Trump’s 2016 Presidential candidacy. After it aired, Vance’s ratings plummeted. (The ad did not mention that the Club for Growth, an anti-tax lobbying group that had been prominent in the Obama era, had itself opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016.)
“Let me just address the elephant in the room,” Vance said, in Troy, before apologizing for not supporting Trump’s candidacy. Audience members, though courteous, wanted more. “Who was your vote for in 2016?” a man probed. “I wrote somebody in, third-party—it was a wasted vote,” Vance said. (In October, 2016, Vance had tweeted that he would vote for Evan McMullin; he has since deleted the tweet.) At another stop, in Lima, a young man asked about a quote he’d seen, in which Vance said that some Trump supporters were racist. “That is the one attack that really pisses me off,” Vance replied, explaining that the quote had been taken out of context. “The full quote is, well, I’m sure some of the people who vote for Trump are racist, but that’s not what’s going on with the majority of this movement.”
There was something instructive about this turn: Vance’s campaign ads insisted that liberals were too quick to call Trump supporters racist, but not long ago he’d had an itchy trigger finger, too. The changes in the Party have come fast. Not only did Trump obliterate many of the coalitions that preceded him; the battle that briefly seemed to loom after January 6th, between pro- and anti-Trump Republicans, evaporated, too. What has emerged this year isn’t unity, or a clean ideological fight, or the establishment. Instead, political operators have picked up different strands of Trumpism and are trying to embody and weaponize them. In Ohio, Gibbons represents the idea of Trump as a businessman, a political outsider with libertarian inflections; Mandel the image of Trump as an unceasing conservative culture warrior; and Vance the theory of Trumpism, an anti-élite nationalism—the Rand Paul wing, the Ted Cruz wing, and the Josh Hawley wing of the Party, respectively. There’s no Mitch McConnell wing at all—that was represented by Senator Rob Portman, the establishment conservative whose coming retirement opened the seat. Portman endorsed Timken, though that hasn’t had much effect on the race; three weeks before Election Day, Timken was instead campaigning with Bernie Kerik, a Trump ally and former N.Y.P.D. commissioner who has been convicted of tax fraud.
In Paulding, Mike DeWine, the Republican governor, had sent his lieutenant governor and running mate, Jon Husted, a northwestern-Ohio local, to represent the ticket. After the Senate candidates had finished speaking, Husted took the stage, wearing a down-home flannel shirt. After some reminiscences about high-school football, and plugs for the high-tech jobs that the administration had brought to the state, Husted said, “Mike DeWine has been the most conservative governor in Ohio history.” The crowd erupted. “Bullshit!” someone screamed, to my left.
“Listen up!” Husted said, and stuck his arm out, as if bracing against the crowd; I had the sense he’d been through similar scenes before. “He signed the heartbeat bill, which protected life,” Husted said. “He signed Stand Your Ground and advanced constitutional carry. You may not like everybody who’s working for him”—this sounded to me like an allusion to the state’s masking mandates, which had been strict—“but he has done all of those things.” This was the move that establishment Republicans have leaned on for decades: social conservatism to mollify the populist right. It got Husted out of the room. It also didn’t seem like it would work for much longer.