Fear of illegal immigrants helps J.D. Vance triumph in Ohio’s primaries

MASON, A SUBURB about 20 miles north of Cincinnati, does not feel like a place where the apocalypse is coming soon. It is a pleasant if sprawling district of detached houses, big-box stores and endlessly, perfect landscaping. Its extensive car parks are full of expensive cars and trucks. After voting at a polling station in a bucolic-looking wedding venue, however, David Myer, a 63-year-old retired health-care worker, says that he sees a much darker future ahead. Thanks to Joe Biden (“not the president”), illegal immigrants are being invited en masse into Ohio. They are living on welfare “and all of the free stuff we give them”, and voting for Democrats. Some are even coming to Mason and begging at traffic lights. “We’re on the precipice of social collapse,” he says.

Mr Myer did not vote for JD Vance, the author and venture capitalist who won the Republican primary election for the United States Senate on May 3rd. He instead went for Mike Gibbons, a self-funded candidate, who got 12% of the vote. But his talking points from him about the impending destruction of Ohio could have come straight out of one of Mr Vance’s speeches from him. With his vision of America being looted by woke corporations, illegal immigrants and a crooked liberal media, Mr Vance persuaded around 32% of Republican voters to back him, enough in the crowded field to carry him to victory.

Mr Vance’s triumph was undoubtedly helped by the endorsement of Donald Trump. The former president gave his blessing from him on April 15th, tipping him into the lead. But at his victory speech in Cincinnati, Mr Vance only briefly mentioned Mr Trump, along with a series of other Republicans who had turned up to help his campaign, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon conspiracy-theorist congresswoman from Georgia. Instead, he said that he intends to stand for “the people who are caught between the corrupt political class of the left and the right”. “Establishment” Republicans, he said, have connived to send American jobs to China while doing nothing to stop Americans getting addicted to opiates sold by the Sackler family. Democrats meanwhile “actively encourage” Mexican drug cartels to import fentanyl, even as they tell children that there are “42 genders”. Mr Vance said that both groups ought to be sent to jail.

Exactly why this sort of rhetoric is so persuasive among Ohio’s Republican voters is unclear. It is true that opioid addiction is a catastrophic problem in the state. But illegal immigration is not. According to Census Bureau estimates, less than 5% of the population of the state are foreign-born, one of the lowest rates in the country. Less than 1% do not have legal residence. The unemployment rate in the state is also almost the lowest it has been in 20 years. And yet it seems to have rallied the majority of those voters who bothered to turn out (all but one of the seven candidates espoused a similar creed). Every voter your correspondent interviewed outside various polling places mentioned illegal immigrants as their primary concern, shortly followed by inflation.

What did not stop Mr Vance’s victory was his previous incarnation, as a darling of liberal publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic, and a thoughtful critic of Mr Trump after his book “Hillbilly Elegy” came out in 2016. His opponents in the race plastered the airwaves with unfortunate quotes, including a suggestion that Mr Trump might become “America’s Hitler”. It doesn’t matter. “He made a mistake and he admits it,” said Rob Fyte, another retiree in Mason, after voting for Mr Vance. Having become famous for a memoir about how working-class people from the Appalachian mountains often look for outsiders to blame for their problems, Mr Vance has seamlessly switched to arguing that outsiders are to blame for their problems. Most voters seemed not to mind.

Will those in the general election in November be as forgiving? Mr Vance joked that his book will probably make for good opposition research. No doubt the winner of the Democratic Party’s primary, Tim Ryan, a congressman from Youngstown, has already read it: he is also running on a China-bashing populist message, and may have a chance. But Ohio is less of a swing state these days. In 2020 it went for Mr Trump by eight points. Most likely, the proud Hillbilly Mr. Vance will go on, taking his apocalyptic message from him to Washington.

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