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Opinion J.D. Vance might just have an ace up his sleeve

J.D. Vance, a Republican Senate candidate for Ohio, addresses a rally in Middletown, Ohio, on July 1. (Jeffrey Dean/AP)

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance seems to be trailing other Republicans in his state’s primary contest. But the novice politician might just have an ace up his sleeve to reinvigorate his campaign: Going hard against companies that don’t verify that employees can legally work in the United States.

Vance has attracted loads of early attention because of his best-selling 2016 book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” and his aggressively populist Twitter activity. This has predictably drawn the ire of the same Acela-corridor elites whom he rails against. It also made him a major early target of one of his primary foes, former state treasurer Josh Mandel. The powerful libertarian-conservative Club for Growth has endorsed Mandel and spent heavily on early television advertising trashing Vance for anti-Trump statements he made in 2016. Never mind that the Club itself was strongly anti-Trump back then; in today’s GOP, such statements are a weakness, and the Club spared no expense in highlighting them for voters.

That ad campaign has had an impact, as recent polls suggest. The first, taken by pollsters for the Club for Growth, shows Vance in fourth place with 10 percent of the vote, well behind Mandel, who leads with 26 percent. The second, taken by the campaign of former Ohio GOP state chair Jane Timken, shows Vance in fifth place with 8 percent. Polls from other candidates’ campaigns shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth, and no nonpartisan poll of the race yet exists. But the fact that both polls roughly agree on the race’s contours suggests Vance is in trouble.

But Vance’s recent embrace of mandatory E-Verify, the federal government’s program to verify the legal status of job applicants, could be the thing that brings him back. National polls show that immigration is one of the top issues for Republicans, who overwhelmingly disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the border. Mandating that businesses use E-Verify before hiring is incredibly popular, too. A January 2021 Ethics and Public Policy Center-YouGov poll that I commissioned showed that 89 percent of Trump voters approve of the idea. That was even higher than the 86 percent of Trump backers who approve of building the former president’s wall on the Mexican border.

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He also may be the only candidate in the race to fully embrace the popular idea. That’s because business groups often quietly lobby against it, and many Republicans have close ties with those entities. Businesses often benefit from looking the other way at an employee’s legal status, knowing that workers living in the United States illegally may be less likely to seek high wages or push for wage hikes. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour can’t support an American-style standard of living, but it looks pretty good to people who come from nations such as Guatemala, where the minimum wage is roughly equivalent to $1.30 an hour, assuming someone works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Guatemalans in the United States sent approximately $10 billion back home in 2019, making up about 15 percent of the small country’s gross domestic product.

Mainstream Republicans, therefore, are caught between a voter base that wants to stop illegal immigration and a donor class that benefits from it. Backing the border wall allows them to triangulate, telling voters they want to stop the flood of migrants while reassuring business that they won’t stop them from hiring those who get through.

Vance, however, is free to make this issue his centerpiece because he has already embraced an anti-corporate economic populism. He is for using government to rebuild America’s manufacturing industry, and he wants to break up Big Tech. Telling businesses that they can’t profit from breaking the law is consistent with Vance’s entire philosophy.

Putting mandatory E-Verify at the center of his primary bid could also change Republican politics nationally. If Vance can ride that issue to victory despite all the opprobrium and negative ads, Republicans across the country would risk defeat if they did not embrace the issue themselves. Politicians always flock to remove reasons voters can oppose them, whether it’s Biden reversing decades of his support for the Hyde Amendment or numerous Republicans reinventing themselves as Trump acolytes after initially opposing him. Much as the passage of California’s Proposition 13 in June 1978 transformed the GOP into a tax-cutting party, Vance coming from behind to win on the basis of mandatory E-Verify would force Republicans to align themselves with their voters, not their donors.

Entrepreneurs always succeed when they supply an unmet consumer demand. The same is true of political entrepreneurs. Mandating E-Verify can be the next big thing in American politics. Leave it to a political outsider such as Vance to make his political fortune by embracing it.