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Opinion Once the toast of liberal parties, J.D. Vance has gone full MAGA

J.D. Vance speaks onstage with former president Donald Trump during a rally April 23 in Delaware, Ohio. (Eli Hiller/Bloomberg News)
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DELAWARE, Ohio — It is a measure of the sad state of our politics today that Donald Trump endorsed a Republican candidate for Senate in Ohio who just a few years ago described the former president as noxious and reprehensible. Since 2018, that candidate has gone out of his way to embrace everything Trump stands for. And now, J.D. Vance has good reason to think his U-turn has been worth it.

Vance, whose best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” became a Netflix movie and made him a star, might now be on a path to win next Tuesday’s Republican primary in Ohio and join the U.S. Senate next year.

When Trump called Vance onstage at the Delaware County fairgrounds in Ohio on Saturday night, he paid him the highest possible compliment, pointing to negative coverage in The Post and the New York Times, as well as on CNN and MSNBC, as evidence that Vance must have great ideas. Sketching out a Vance win, Trump told the crowd, “You have to imagine all of the liberal tears that will be cried.” At that moment, Vance’s transition was complete.

It certainly appeared unlikely three months ago when Vance pollster Tony Fabrizio, who also works for Trump, found him mired in the single digits in a six-way race. That was partly because Vance’s opponents had spent millions sharing footage of him criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.

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In those days, Vance was the toast of coastal cocktail parties, where liberals saw “Hillbilly Elegy” as a Rosetta Stone to understand Trump’s appeal in flyover country. Vance likened Trump to the opioids ravaging the Rust Belt (“cultural heroin”), warned that he was “leading the white working class to a very dark place” and described Trump’s policies as ranging “from immoral to absurd.”

When he kicked off his own campaign for Senate last summer, Vance knew that this paper trail would probably mean he couldn’t win Trump’s endorsement. His goal was to instead convince the former president that he had changed and to dissuade him from endorsing any of his opponents. He became a frequent guest on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as other right-wing channels such as Newsmax. Billionaire Peter Thiel poured money into Vance’s super PAC and later brokered a meeting at Mar-a-Lago for Vance to kiss Trump’s ring. Vance also hired Andy Surabian, an adviser to Donald Trump Jr. The former president’s eldest son stumped with Vance down Interstate 75 — from Toledo to Cincinnati — the must-win corridor for Ohio Republicans.

Vance overcompensated for his past apostasies by going full MAGA. He enlisted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) as a surrogate and even defended her appearance at a white-nationalist gathering. He embraces the “big lie” about the 2020 election, describing Joe Biden as a “fake president.”

Along the way, Vance turned out to be, by far, the most articulate advocate for Trumpism in Ohio’s GOP field. He’s a natural on TV and has been happy to espouse Trumpian views on immigration, trade and foreign policy. Trump watched the debates and could see that Vance easily won.

Besides, it’s not as if Vance’s rivals have been pushing Trump away; instead, they mostly fought each other to curry his favor. Desperate to break through at a debate in March, former state treasurer Josh Mandel nearly got in an altercation with businessman Mike Gibbons, who was leading in polls at the time. The stunt backfired on Mandel, while Gibbons has struggled to defend his investments in China. Former state GOP chair Jane Timken, once a Trump favorite, has struggled to get traction despite hiring a number of the former president’s political advisers.

The only candidate who has not bent the knee for Trump is state Sen. Matt Dolan. In any other era, the smart money would be on Dolan, the scion of the billionaire family that owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. But Vance has taken no chances and attacked Dolan over the team changing its name from the Indians, which he presents as caving to wokeness run amok. Dolan is the only candidate in the race who acknowledges that Biden won in 2020.

Polling from Fox News shows Vance taking the lead since he received Trump’s endorsement, with 25 percent undecided. “I want to pick somebody that’s going to win,” Trump said, “and this man is going to win.”

If he does, Vance could plausibly be on vice-presidential shortlists in 2024. The 37-year-old might even be Trump’s running mate.