When J.D. Vance walked into the surgical technology class at Great Oaks Career Campuses, the vocational-technical students were steeling themselves for final exams. Yet it turned out to be perfect timing. Vance was only planning to observe the class, but when he noticed that one of the students was anxious about having her blood drawn by her classmate, the Republican senator of Ohio casually removed his suit jacket and offered to take her place. When no objection from the teacher or students materialized, he sat down, rolled up his sleeves and smiled.
To the clearly nervous student about to stick a needle in his arm, Vance said quietly, “Don’t be nervous. If you have to do it again, it’s fine with me. I am here for you until you get it right.”
The student got it done on the first jab.
The instructor looked at Vance with a broad smile. “Well, that wasn’t something I expected I’d see from you today.”
Confounding expectations is turning into something of a habit for Vance.
Eight months after winning Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat over Democrat Tim Ryan and a year after winning one of the wildest primary races in the Buckeye State’s history, with both races having former President Donald Trump’s hands all over them, Vance is not the fire-breather the press predicted he would be. Neither, of course, is his mild and wonkish predecessor, former Sen. Rob Portman.
Vance is just fine not fitting in any of those molds.
Sitting comfortably in a sunny high-school conference room on the west side of Cincinnati, Vance has just finished spending most of a Friday morning touring the Diamond Oaks campus of the technical school. Throughout the two-hour visit, he walked into each classroom, watching the 11th and 12th graders show off their skills as he chatted with them about what they were going to do with the certificates they were earning in carpentry, graphic design, auto mechanics, coding, cosmetology and welding after they graduated.
When Vance arrived earlier in the day and walked up to greet the principal, he got his own surprise.
“I went to shake his hand, and I thought, ‘He looks familiar,’ and then I realized, oh my God, that’s Mr. Rush, my high-school government teacher. And I gave him a big hug. And it was just fun to walk around with him and see him as the principal at this place,” he said.
The night before his visit here, he had been in Oxon Hill, Maryland, at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit, warning that the greatest threat facing America is a Chinese invasion of Taiwan while President Joe Biden is sending U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine.
The Middletown-born author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy had been treated as a translator for Rust Belt populists, but Vance’s Trumpist turn convinced many of his now-colleagues that he was simply part of the problem. (Vance has already backed Trump in the 2024 nomination contest).
Perhaps that’s why in his first 200-plus days in the upper chamber, Vance has tried to find common ground. “I get along quite well with Chris Murphy. Smart guy, far to the left of me, but we have some areas of agreement and some things I think we’re going to be able to work on together,” he said of the Democratic junior senator from Connecticut, whose diplomatic nominee Stephanie Sullivan, Vance blocked in July.
Sometimes events force the kind of cooperation that might not have come naturally. Vance’s first month in office was a baptism by fire of sorts in having to respond to the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine and subsequent toxic controlled burn. Within days, both he and his fellow Ohio senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, found themselves an unlikely duo both in Columbiana County and in Congress trying to get to the bottom of what happened.
“In that case, I think working on railway safety in a way where we could get both the railroads open to it and get both Democrats and Republicans to actually move this thing” enabled everyone involved to put aside their egos, Vance suggested. “It’s pure practicality. You have to do something. How do you get something done? You’ve got to work with somebody. Well, I guess I’m going to go work with that person.”
The resulting railroad legislation, the Rail Safety Act of 2023, of which Vance was an original co-sponsor, passed through the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in May. It was so bipartisan that both Trump and Biden gave it their full-throated support.
For Vance, it felt personal. “What happened in East Palestine was something that affected people that I care about. And you had just had to get it done,” he said.
A year ago, when Vance won the Republican primary, the narrative was that he was riding the wave of resentment politics. But the reason he remains something of a puzzle to the press and his colleagues is that he isn’t driven by any one thing. There is no doubt he is a leading player in the conservative populist rebellion against “the establishment.” It’s also clear his Appalachian roots, military service in the Marines, education at Yale and early career in Silicon Valley play important, and sometimes contradictory, roles in his worldview. When talking about Ukraine, for example, he grows frustrated with the difficulty many policymakers have in visualizing what life in uniform is like.
Vance is still a conservative populist, still a hardcore Trump supporter. But he has also introduced legislation with Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.
Vance smiles at the notion of not fitting into someone else’s caricature of him, then heads off to catch up with his old high-school government teacher.