Consider J.D. Vance, the author whose book “Hillbilly Elegy” focused on the same White working-class frustration that Trump was hoping to leverage. When Trump’s comments about groping women were published by The Washington Post that month, Vance despaired on Twitter: “Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologize for this man. Lord help us.” Two days later, he tweeted that he found Trump “reprehensible,” specifically because of how Trump “makes people I care about afraid,” such as immigrants and Muslims. By the end of the month, Vance had endorsed third-party candidate Evan McMullin, who was injected into the race specifically to appeal to Trump-skeptical Republicans.
“In 4 years,” Vance wrote in March 2016, “I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him most aggressively.”
And then Trump won. His political approach wasn’t repudiated but validated. Skepticism about his chances transformed into skepticism about the ability of polling to capture his support. Trump leaned into his fight-for-the-base approach, moving cultural and political fights important to the loudest part of the Republican electorate to the forefront of his efforts in the White House. He earned enormous support from the party as a result and, as the 2018 midterms approached, showed that he could make or break candidates in Republican primary fights (if not the general election).
Instead of blind support for Trump being a mark of short-term delusion in late 2016, it had become the defining feature of successful Republican candidates. If you were someone thinking about running for office and you’d made a bet on Trump collapsing, you suddenly found yourself at a distinct disadvantage. If you were, for example, J.D. Vance.
As Vance was unveiling his bid for Ohio’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat last week, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski unearthed all of the above tweets, ones that Vance had tried to memory-hole. The timing was not pleasant for Vance for obvious reasons, and it spurred him to again do something that runs contrary to Trump-style politics: He apologized.
“I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy,” he said in an interview on Fox News on Monday. “I think he was a good president, I think he made a lot of good decisions for people, and I think he took a lot of flak.”
It’s certainly the case that Vance’s rhetoric has in recent months aligned squarely with Trump’s. In April, he appeared on a podcast hosted by right-wing media personality Charlie Kirk on which he used the authority he’d generated from his best-selling book to advance a case that would seem to instill discomfort in those immigrants for whom, four years prior, he’d offered so much sympathy.
“There’s just no comparison between the positive effects of children and the positive effects of an immigrant,” Vance told Kirk, comparing the benefits of adult immigrants with native-born children. “I think people are great. I love that people want to come to the country. But you can’t have so many people coming to the country at a time when our own families aren’t replicating themselves.”
The evolution from opining to running for office can be blurry, but given that the Kirk conversation was explicitly predicated on his potential Senate run, it’s safe to say that Vance’s arguments were offered in the context of appealing to a Republican primary electorate.
He’s not the only person in that contest to have evolved on views of Trump, mind you. Former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel (R) has leaned hard into Trump support after being a strong ally of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the 2016 primaries. Mandel’s Twitter bio describes him as the “1st Statewide Official in Ohio to support President Trump” — certainly a bit of misdirection — but it’s his embrace of Trumpian politicking that stands out. He has lambasted journalists and done weird stunts with an obvious eye toward seizing the mantle of Trumpiest candidate.
These evolutions prompt an obvious question. Why? Why are Republican candidates so eager to parrot Trump’s rhetoric and style? Why are so many 2022 candidates eager to embrace Trump’s false claim that the last presidential election was tainted by fraud? Why isn’t it the case that Vance could run — as his 2016 comments suggest — as a different type of Republican candidate?
There are probably two central reasons. The first is that criticizing Trump doesn’t generate the same amount of attention in the conservative media ecosystem as praising him. And the second is that the primary electorate will probably be further to the right than the Republican voting base overall.
In the right’s media ecosystem, there is one big dog in the room: Fox News. Fox News appearances have been central to the emergence of a number of Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who parlayed frequent appearances into a Trump primary endorsement in 2018 and then a narrow general-election win. While there are a lot of avenues for reaching conservative media consumers, none have the same reach as Fox.
After the 2020 election, though, the network faced a backlash. It had called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, a call that worked out but probably was offered too early. The network declared Biden the overall winner once Pennsylvania was called on Nov. 7, but this was not a message that Republicans or Trump wanted to hear. The then-president encouraged people to bail on the network, pushing such further-right alternatives as One America News and Newsmax. Fox News insisted it wasn’t concerned, but its wan embrace of the reality of the election results was heavily leavened with support for questions about the election outcome. In the months since, it has done little to correct misinformation about the election and a lot to amplify cultural fights that spur more attention and energy.
In other words, even in the most mainstream conservative outlet, there’s no obvious space for criticism of Trump. It’s easy to see how this is self-fulfilling: Less criticism of the former president reinforces the idea that criticism isn’t warranted. If it were, why wouldn’t the truth-keepers at Fox and One America cover it?
For a primary candidate, though, it’s probably that second question that’s more pressing. It has long been understood that primary voters are more ideological than general-election voters. That makes sense: They’re bothering to weigh in on a contest within the party itself. This can be hard to measure, though, since one would need to compare a primary electorate with a general-election electorate in a race that’s necessarily occurring at a state level — a resource-intensive effort. But the Pew Research Center did such an analysis of the 2012 Republican electorate, finding, as you’d expect, that primary voters were 10 points more likely to identify as conservative than those who voted only in the general election that year.
In part because Republicans are consistently less likely to identify as moderate than Democrats, a Brookings Institution review of the 2018 primary electorate found that while two-thirds of Democrats identified themselves as somewhat liberal or moderate, nearly three-quarters of Republicans identified themselves as somewhat or very conservative. This is important because conservative Republicans are also more likely to support Trump. A review of the 2020 electorate conducted by Pew found that moderate or liberal Republicans preferred Trump over Biden by a 63-point margin. Among conservative Republicans, the margin was a staggering 95 points.
In many districts, gerrymandering means that the outcome of a primary doesn’t matter much. If your House district is drawn in a way that guarantees a Republican will win, the primary can focus on appealing as directly as possible to the Republican voters who will turn out — that is, to more-conservative Republicans. This is often cited as a reason for the increased polarization of Congress. At a state level, gerrymandering doesn’t play such a role, but it is the case that Ohio is now red enough that a midterm Senate race will probably favor a Republican in the general election. (Cook Political Report has the race as “lean Republican.”) This is not a guarantee, given that Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) won reelection fairly easily in the blue-wave election of 2018. But it is safer to bet on a Republican winning next year than a Democrat, reducing the damage that might be done by running hard to the right in the primary.
Gauging what the electorate will want 12 months from now is tricky. Sure, there’s a big push to be the loudest voice on Trump’s false claims about voter fraud. Republican officials, from the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), are insistent that bolstering fraud claims is a central component of candidate viability. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, though, asked respondents whether they thought it was more important to prioritize making it easier to vote or, as Trump would demand, harder to vote illegally. By a 2-to-1 margin, people favored the former — including a third of Republicans. Among self-identified conservatives, 4 in 10 thought it was more important to make it easier to vote legally. That doesn’t suggest that embracing Trump’s false rhetoric isn’t useful, but it does mean that the picture may be more complicated politically than it seems at first.
The main problem for Republicans trying to negotiate the moment, like Vance and Mandel, is that there have not been many post-Trump races yet from which to draw lessons about the electorate and the influence of the former president. 2022 will be a proving ground for Trump’s endorsement and for the interest of his base, interest that waned without him on the ballot in 2018, to the Democrats’ advantage. They are making a bet based on 2018 and 2020 that fervent Trump support will play well with the more conservative primary electorate and that this won’t hurt them in a general election.
They may be right. But it is also the case that both have, within the past five years, been on the losing end of political bets involving Donald Trump.