How Tucker Carlson helped J.D. Vance to victory in the Ohio Senate primary
J.D. Vance won the U.S. Senate nomination in Ohio on Tuesday thanks in no small part to the backing of Fox News star host Tucker Carlson. Vance had in recent years transformed himself into a hard-right “national conservative” bomb-thrower who echoed Carlson’s own inflammatory and racist rhetoric.
Carlson’s support for Vance was not subtle.
“We don’t endorse a lot of candidates on the show or get even too close to politicians because honestly, most of them are really disappointing,” the Fox host said on the eve of the primary. “They say they’re going to do one thing, they do another. But occasionally you run into somebody who could actually change things, and you know that person could change things because all the right people are hysterical — literally hysterical — about the idea of him advancing to the United States Senate. That’d be J.D. Vance, and he’s running for Senate from Ohio.”
Vance was not a natural fit for the MAGA GOP. His 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which describes the despairing hillbilly culture he grew up in as a form of social decay, made him the toast of New York City salons and garnered him posts at elite bastions like The New York Times and CNN. As he rose in prominence, he publicly denounced Donald Trump as “an idiot” who was “noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place,” and declared himself “a Never Trump guy.”
But Vance had two powerful figures in his corner as he plotted a run for Senate: the anti-democratic billionaire Peter Thiel, his former employer at the investment firm Mithril Capital, and Carlson. Thiel provided the cash — he invested $15 million in a super PAC that supported Vance — while Carlson, the face of Fox and one of the most influential figures in the GOP, showered him with promotional airtime and helped him secure the crucial endorsement from Trump that put him over the top.
Vance has been a frequent presence on Fox, and on Carlson’s program in particular, over the last several years. He has made 34 appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight since August 1, 2017, nearly half of his total of 69 weekday Fox appearances over that period, according to Media Matters’ internal database. Those interviews became more numerous after Vance declared his Senate run on July 1, 2021 — he appeared on Carlson’s show 15 times, and on weekday Fox programming a total of 39 times. Meanwhile, the rest of the Ohio Senate field was almost entirely absent from Fox airwaves in the months leading up to primary day.
Vance’s first interview with Carlson, on November 23, 2018, is notable both for how different it seems from his more recent appearances — and for how it foreshadows them. Vance argued that the GOP’s huge losses in the 2018 primaries had come because the party’s attempt to repeal Obamacare had been a “millstone” on the party, citing this as an example of a divide between Republican elites who call for moderate social policies and libertarian economic ones while its voters prefer “the opposite.” He concluded that the party’s leaders “have to accept” their voters’ preferences and demonstrate they are “proud of the coalition that we have and try to build on it as opposed to being ashamed of that fact.”
In that interview, as in other early appearances on Carlson’s show, Vance’s rhetoric is measured and deliberate, the very model of an elite commentator opining on his party’s strategy. But as he moved into the political arena, Vance demonstrated what he apparently thought was necessary to show respect for his party’s voters — he started providing the sort of hard-right demagoguery commonly heard from the likes of Carlson. The switch became evident during a February 22, 2021, interview with Carlson — just two days before the formation of the super PAC Thiel used to support his campaign — when Vance said that corporate diversity trainings are “destroying our society” and condemned “woke” identity politics.
Vance’s subsequent appearances on Carlson’s show were littered with the sort of bigotry, conspiracy theories, cruelty, and authoritarianism familiar to the program’s audience. He condemned the Kyle Rittenhouse trial as “child abuse masquerading as justice”; described Silicon Valley technology companies as “the enemies of Western civilization” which are “willing to burn down our entire constitutional republic”; attacked the COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a conspiracy between the government and pharmaceutical companies; denounced Democratic politicians as “childless cat ladies”; and called for the seizure of assets from nonprofits whose advocacy he opposes.
Vance even invoked the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that Carlson mainstreamed from the white nationalist fever swamps.
Carlson has frequently heaped praise on Vance. He has at various times described the Ohio Republican as “one of the smartest voices in what is becoming a new movement within conservatism,” “one of the sharpest observers of American politics,” “a keen observer of American life,” “one of the smartest people in public life,” and “one of the most interesting people we know.”
When Vance went on Carlson’s show the night he announced his Senate run, the Fox host concluded his interview by saying, “I probably shouldn't say this, I'm really glad you're doing it. J.D. Vance, I admire you and I wish you luck, very much. Thank you for doing this.”
“I don't think I've ever heard a candidate for high office speak as honestly and concisely as you just did, and I really hope you're rewarded for it,” he said during a February 23 interview with Vance.
The admiration is mutual. When Carlson came under fire for promoting white nationalist talking points, Vance defended him, tweeting, “Tucker Carlson is the only powerful figure who consistently challenges elite dogma—on both cultural and economic questions. That is why they try to destroy him. Don’t fall for it this time, or any other.”
Vance has used his Carlson appearances to ask for donations and turned the interviews into Facebook ads. But Carlson’s biggest contribution to Vance’s campaign may have come off the air.
Ohio’s Senate candidates competed fiercely for Trump’s endorsement as they jockeyed for position in a competitive primary. Vance, however, had support from Carlson, who had long had the former president’s ear and served as one of his unofficial Fox Cabinet members during his presidency. In a phone call, Carlson reportedly “promis[ed] Trump that Vance was with him on the issues despite the candidate’s past anti-Trump comment.” Trump concluded the call by telling the Fox host he “would likely be very ‘happy’” with the endorsement. Days later, Trump endorsed Vance, helping him to victory.
On Tuesday night, Vance included Carlson as he listed the various notables who had helped him win.
Carlson earned it. Vance’s political rise would have been impossible without the Fox star.
Update (5/5/22): Carlson’s “cable news megaphone … helped pave the way to victory” for Vance because his program is “one of the Republican Party’s biggest and most valuable platforms,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday after this post’s publication. The Times further reported:
Even with the early Thiel money, Mr. Vance relied on conservative media for attention, appearing on the programs of Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.
Appearances on Mr. Carlson’s Fox News program were most valuable of all.
He has appeared on the program 15 times since July, according to Media Matters for America, often drawing heavy praise from the host. “Occasionally, you run into somebody who could actually change things,” Mr. Carlson said during an interview on the eve of the election. “That would be J.D. Vance.”
“Tucker was really, really important,” Mr. [Luke] Thompson [who ran the Thiel-backed super PAC that supported Vance] said. “It meant that our guy had a platform to go and talk to primary voters in Ohio — and small-dollar donors nationwide.”
On Wednesday night, Vance launched his general election campaign in the same place he began and ended his primary campaign – on Carlson’s show. The Fox host congratulated him on his primary win, gave him a platform to attack Democratic nominee Rep. Tim Ryan as “a total fraud,” and told him, “I really am grateful that you won.”