On May 3, Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance took the stage for a victory night speech after winning the most expensive Senate primary ever, and continued to spew the same nativist dog-whistles that were an essential part of his primary campaign. Tens of millions of dollars were spent to amplify misinformation, xenophobia, and white nationalist conspiracy theories to Ohioans as Vance and his fellow Republicans competed to win the favor of both Donald Trump and his radicalized base.
Once a prominent “never-Trumper,” Vance landed an endorsement from Donald Trump in the final weeks of the primary. Vance’s latest conversion to die-hard MAGA came as soon as he started to campaign for the seat last year picking up support from the most prominent voices on the radicalized right throughout his campaign. And like them, Vance fully embraced the absurd and deadly conspiracy theories about a migrant “invasion” and the “great replacement.” He made hyping these conspiracy theories and xenophobic misinformation about fentanyl a cornerstone of his appeal to primary voters. As Vance now heads to the general election against Democratic nominee Rep. Tim Ryan, it is worth detailing Vance’s public nativist radicalization as he sought the Republican nod.
Vance Embraces White Nationalists Conspiracy Theories
In an attempt to burnish his radical-right credentials after years of being a public face opposing Trump, J.D. Vance actively courted figures immensely popular with the Republican base. Figures like Tucker Carlson, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk and of course, Trump himself, all of whom loudly peddle racist, xenophobic, and election lies. Vance quickly sounded like those he surrounded himself with, making a racist conspiracy theory about a non-existent immigrant “invasion” a core part of his primary campaign. This is the same racist conspiracy theory, it should be noted, that inspired the mass murders who attacked shoppers at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas in 2019 and just across the Ohio state line at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Pennsylvania, in 2018.
The racist fiction holds that there is a literal invasion happening along the U.S. border with Mexico as non-white migrants are coming in a hostile and coordinated effort to replace white people and undermine our democracy and sovereignty. This is an absurd notion completely divorced from reality, but a powerful story to stoke fear and anxiety in the minds of voters. This rhetoric around “invasion” is inextricably tied into the white nationalist ideas of a “great replacement,” which research from the University of Chicago found was the “most important driver of the insurrectionist movement” that sparked the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob in January 2021. Vance ran on these ideas and surrounded himself with others who amplified them.
Vance first suggested military action to halt refugees last September, after Haitians fleeing back-to-back devastating natural disasters and the assassination of their Prime Minister, formed a temporary refugee encampment in Del Rio, Texas, as they tried to apply for asylum. Vance tweeted “Send in the Marines,” in response to a short video of the refugees. In December 2021, Vance invoked the racist conspiracy theory about a migrant “invasion” in response to reports of Customs and Border Patrol encountering a couple of thousand unauthorized migrants, most of whom were likely swiftly deported by the Biden administration. That December, Vance made the audacious claim that “never before has American leadership actively promoted the invasion of the country.”
However, Vance was quick to dismiss the real invasion of Russia into Ukraine. In February, during an episode of Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, Vance made the offensive comparison between the migrants at the southern border and Russian troops then massing at the Ukrainian border. “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” Vance told Bannon, “I do care about the fact that in my community right now the leading cause of death among 18-45-year-olds is Mexican fentanyl that’s coming across the southern border.” Vance went on to cite the southern border and “demographic transformation in this country,” as the greater of mutually exclusive threats to America.
Over the last few months of the campaign, Vance began to more explicitly promote versions of the white nationalist “invasion” and the “great replacement” conspiracy theories. Here are three examples:
- In February 2022, Vance tweeted “Biden has looked at his approval ratings and realizes that the only way to win in ‘24 is to replace the citizens of his own country with illegal foreigners. The invasion he’s allowing to happen at the border is about power for democrats and nothing more.”
- On March 17, Vance went on Tucker Carlson’s show to advance the racist lie, saying: “Democrat politicians who have decided that they cannot win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the ones already here. That is what this is about. We have an invasion in this country because very powerful people get richer and more powerful because of it. It’s not bad policy, it’s evil and we need to call it that.”
- In April, Vance went up with the first TV ad from his campaign in the primary, reportedly spending $1 million dollars on the spot, which advanced a version of the racist lie. In the ad, Vance falsely claims, “Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans, with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.” Or as a headline from Greg Sargent succinctly described the ad: “As vile as it gets: J.D. Vance goes full ‘great replacement theory’.”
Vance Embraces Nativist Misinformation
J.D. Vance was hocking anti-immigrant fear-mongering coated in a thick layer of misinformation nearly a year before the primary election. As Congress was considering creating pathways to citizenship for undocumented neighbors last summer, Vance falsely attacked the proposal as an “open-border policies” that would lead to “rising crime, lower wages for Americans and a drug epidemic crushing too many Ohio families.” In August of 2021, Vance took to Twitter to baselessly fear-monger about Afghan refugees.
As the primary approached, Vance began to refine his misleading nativist attack line. He employed a version of the public story about his mother’s struggles with opioid addiction to drive an attack around a spurious connection between fentanyl and migrants at the border. Drug trafficking is a serious issue that requires decisive action and comprehensive solutions from our elected leaders. Unfortunately, Vance, and too many of his fellow Republican candidates, are more interested in scoring political points than truly helping the American people who are suffering the consequences of our inability to deal with this reality.
Vance laid out his disingenuous line of attack in a speech at CPAC in February of this year, claiming “the Mexican fentanyl coming across the US southern border is the deadliest and most dangerous stuff that has ever been on our streets and if ten-years ago the stuff my mom took that put her in a comma was the Mexican fentanyl coming across the border in 2022 we would have never had the second chances to have the seven years with my mom.”
Protect Ohio Values PAC followed up on this speech with a TV ad solely focusing on this message. The PAC is funded by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel who has dumped $13.5 million so far into pushing Vance’s candidacy. The PAC reportedly spent $800,000 on the spot with a voice-over that begins “for J.D. Vance, border security is personal, a childhood torn apart by addiction. Now J.D. Vance is on a mission to stop death from streaming across our border.” The ad offers not a solution to that problem but instead claims, “Vance will finish the wall, end welfare for illegals, and eliminate all federal tax dollars for sanctuary cities.” This reference to the border wall and a list of dog-whistles has nothing to do with stopping drug trafficking. But this wild speculation divorced from factual reality and devoid of real substantive solutions appears to be an unsurprising theme for Vance.
In the week before the primary, Vance took his arguments to a new extreme. In an interview with Roger Stone, Vance suggested that President Joe Biden is intentionally allowing fentanyl to enter the U.S. through the southern border to kill off MAGA voters. “If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl?” Vance then said, “It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it.” The New York Times reported that Vance made the remarks “with a straight face but no evidence,” citing the fact that “fentanyl deaths did rise sharply in 2021, but they rose sharply in 2020 as well.”
Vance’s own work to address the issue he is making the centerpiece of his campaign has been at best, window dressing. After becoming famous for sharing the struggles his family suffered from opioids, Vance started a non-profit Our Ohio Renewal. The organization was supposed to help combat the state’s opioid epidemic. But like much of Vance’s politics the non-profit was all show no substance. A report from Business Insider found:
“Five years later, the much-ballyhooed nonprofit Our Ohio Renewal seems to have faltered before it ever got off the ground…Our Ohio Renewal spent more on “management services” provided by its executive director Jai Chabria — who also serves as Vance’s top political advisor — than it did on programs to fight opioid abuse.
Nativism Isn’t a General Election Silver Bullet Even in Red State
Vance and his primary opponents spent millions on ugly anti-immigrant attacks to win over slices of the Republican base. And Vance will likely continue with nativist political attacks through November to try to continue to energize a base that may still be skeptical of his commitment to their brand of politics. However, Democrats and the media should be deeply suspicious of a narrative that claims the radical conspiracy ladened anti-immigrant appeals on offer have broad appeal and efficacy in a general election, even in a red state. Recent evidence suggests the majority of voters are skeptical of GOP’s extremism on the immigration issue. Polling from late April essentially found strong Democratic voters trust Democrats’ immigration vision, strong Republican voters trust Republicans, and independent voters are split down the middle.
- An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll asked which party would do a better job handling immigration and found that Republicans have a narrow 37-34% margin over Democrats, with 28% of respondents unsure or blaming both.
- A Washington Post-ABC News poll asked a virtually identical question and found that Republicans edge out Democrats by 43-40% margin, with independents evenly divided.
While immigration turns out to be something like a draw, there are issues that clearly work for one party over the other. There is no compelling evidence in these polls to suggest that immigration is poised to be a decisive issue that swings elections against Democrats in 2022. Remember that Gallup recently found that three-quarters of Americans support that notion of immigration as a good thing and that 70% of the public support citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
This is not to suggest that Democrats are in good shape on immigration as a 2022 issue. But the type of nativism advanced by Vance and by his fellow Republicans isn’t a silver bullet, either. And Democrats like Tim Ryan might be able to appeal to swing voters and motivate key parts of their own base by leaning into their values and solutions on the issue. A summary of the findings of a poll from late April commissioned by the Immigration Hub reads:
“While immigration is not the top issue for a majority of voters, the findings do underscore that (1) the issue remains important to a segment of voters – made up of swing, Democratic base and Latino voters – who can be motivated and/or shifted on the issue, and (2) despite Republicans holding a notable communications advantage on immigration, Democrats can counter and remain competitive on immigration by communicating popular, balanced immigration solutions and messaging that avoid repeating GOP talking points.”
While Ohio has moved right in recent election cycles, the Vance/Ryan Ohio Senate race will be a competitive contest that we all should be watching closely. Vance is the latest avatar for the Republican Party’s radical turn towards dangerous nationalist conspiracy theories and xenophobic disinformation. Ryan is an experienced Democratic legislator, who could put up a real fight against Vance if he can break through the noise and nativism and provide a real contrast in values, vision, and solutions.