J.D. Vance Seized His Chance, but the New Right Had a Bad Night

Big-government conservatives underperformed across the country.


Author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance cruised to victory in Ohio's U.S. Senate contest on Tuesday night. The race looked to be a test of whether combative campaign tactics in defense of nationalist policies can find success at a high level when practiced by someone other than former President Donald Trump. Yet the failure of a predicted "red tsunami" to materialize makes it hard to draw sweeping conclusions from the Ohio outcome.

Viewed in isolation, Vance's win would seem to augur well for both Trump and the national conservative agenda of which the senator-elect has been a high-profile proponent. His victory will make him the third natcon-friendly member of the U.S. Senate, alongside Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. 

A number of other races across the country were too close to call as of Wednesday morning, however, with control of both the House and the Senate hanging in the balance. Vance also badly underperformed a fellow Republican and onetime Trump critic in what has become an increasingly bright red state. Ohio incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine secured a second term by a 25-point margin; in that context, Vance's six-point victory looks less impressive.

​​This was supposed to be a very good night for the GOP, with both structural factors and economic fundamentals working in Republicans' favor. The party of the sitting president has historically done poorly in midterm elections: As the Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson put it yesterday, "with the exception of 1998 and 2002, this has been true through my lifetime." Meanwhile, amid a slagging economy and high inflation, surveys have consistently found that the cost of living is voters' top concern, and that voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on that issue.

Despite those headwinds, Democrat John Fetterman managed to flip the Pennsylvania Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pat Toomey, defeating celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, and Democrat Josh Shapiro won the Pennsylvania governor's race against Republican (and vocal 2020 election denier) Doug Mastriano. In Arizona, Republican Senate hopeful Blake Masters—whose candidacy, like Vance's, was bankrolled by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel—is currently trailing. Far more surprising is that Kari Lake, a Trumpy local TV celebrity who was expected to easily claim the Arizona governor's mansion, is also behind. 

The decidedly non-Trumpy Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won reelection in Georgia. And although Trump threw his weight behind the former football star Herschel Walker for the Peach State's U.S. Senate seat, that race looks poised to go to a runoff. If Walker loses, it will be a blow for the perception, fostered in the wake of the 2016 Access Hollywood tape, that Trump-like fame and fortune outweigh personal sexual transgressions with voters.

The story in Florida, where Republican incumbents Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis cleaned up, is more ambiguous. 

Rubio has been a fellow traveler of the national conservatives, speaking regularly at their conferences, laying out a case for what he calls "common-good capitalism," and generally embracing more government intervention in the economy than Republicans in the past have tended to be comfortable with. But in the last year he has returned to speaking eloquently about the importance of individual freedom, something many on the New Right consider passé or even naive. And unlike Vance and some others in the natcon movement, he has resisted going all in on what I call will-to-power conservatism: the demand that Republicans use state coercion to reward their friends and punish their enemies, rule of law be damned.

DeSantis, on the other hand, has been an active practitioner of will-to-power politics. He went after Disney for voicing objections to a state education law. He has tried to control social media platforms' moderation policies. And during COVID, he did not stop at rejecting statewide lockdown measures and reopening the public schools; he used government power to preempt the right of local governments to set their own pandemic policies and prohibited private businesses from implementing vaccine requirements. Voters rewarded him with an almost 20-point victory over party-switching former Gov. Charlie Crist, which would seem to offer evidence for the idea that "muscular," big-government conservatism is the Republican Party's future.

At the same time, DeSantis' success on an otherwise disappointing night for the GOP represents a challenge to Trump himself. DeSantis is a much smarter and more serious candidate than the former president, far and away the top alternative for the Republican Party's 2024 presidential nomination. What's more, Trump knows it: He came out swinging against the Florida governor, whom he tried to brand "Ron DeSanctimonious," in the week before the midterms. This unprompted attack against a member of his own party removed any doubt whether Trump sees DeSantis as a threat. The latter's runaway win on Tuesday night suggests the former president's power over the Republican Party may indeed be waning.

Vance, who admits to being a "flip-flop-flipper" on Trump, may seem like a counterexample to this narrative. In 2016, he tweeted that the then–presidential candidate "makes people I care about afraid. Immigrants, Muslims, etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible." Responding to the Access Hollywood tape, he lamented, "Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologize for this man." He deleted those tweets, and others critical of the 45th president, while bidding for Trump's endorsement in the Senate primary, which he eventually received. (Trump then publicly joked that Vance had "kiss[ed] my ass" to get his support, proving that no act of abject fealty goes unpunished.)

It wasn't long before Vance had warmed to a Trumpy blend of hatemongering and authoritarian braggadocio. My personal favorite example is a tweet from the Senate hopeful last year asking just how "disgusting and violent" it is in New York City—as if Vance, a Yale Law graduate and founder of a multimillion-dollar venture capital firm, required tutoring on such questions from Ohio voters.

In the end, his pandering to Trump's supporters paid off for the author of Hillbilly Elegy. What that experience suggests about the future of his party, and of the New Right, is less clear.