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Analysis: Is J.D. Vance keeping Mitch McConnell up at night?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters following a closed-door caucus lunch, at the Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2022. A chorus of Republicans say Democrats' economic package focused on climate and health care would be widely damaging.  McConnell calls it “a giant package of huge new job-killing tax hikes, Green New Deal craziness that will kill American energy, and prescription drug socialism that will leave us with fewer new life-saving medicines."
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters following a closed-door caucus lunch, at the Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2022. A chorus of Republicans say Democrats' economic package focused on climate and health care would be widely damaging. McConnell calls it “a giant package of huge new job-killing tax hikes, Green New Deal craziness that will kill American energy, and prescription drug socialism that will leave us with fewer new life-saving medicines."

Does Mitch McConnell lay awake at night, tossing and turning over the fate of J.D. Vance, his GOP Senate candidate in Ohio?

Probably not. But the Senate minority leader wants desperately to be the majority leader again and, with a 50-50 Senate now, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote, he doesn't have much margin for error in November's mid-term election.

Last week, at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce event in Erlanger, McConnell made national headlines when he did something unusual for him — he expressed doubt about whether his party has what it takes to re-take the Senate.

"I think there's probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate," McConnell said. "Senate races are just different. They're statewide; candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome."

If Mitch McConnell is worried about the quality of the Republican candidates running for the Senate, you know for certain that there is trouble in paradise.

Couldn’t blame the guy if he did have a sleepless night or two between now and November 8.

So, why would McConnell worry about Vance, the author and venture capitalist who returned to his native state a few years ago to run for Senate?

Two polls released this month — one from The Trafalgar Group, the other from Emerson College — show Vance with a modest lead over his Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, the long-time congressman from the Mahoning Valley. Five percent in The Trafalgar Group poll, 3% in the Emerson College poll.

But maybe McConnell and the Republican leadership in Washington know something the rest of us don't.

A few weeks ago, the Vance-Ryan contest was not even on the radar of the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC closely tied to the Senate minority leader.

The assumption was that Ohio is a red state where Trump rules and where Vance, who won the May GOP primary because of Trump's endorsement, would win hands-down, no question about it.

Well, somebody at the Senate Leadership Fund — and likely McConnell himself — decided that the conventional wisdom on Ohio was more conventional than wise.

Suddenly, last week, the SLF did an about-face on Ohio and announced it would be reserving $28 million in TV and radio air time in Ohio, making Ohio the third largest expenditure by the super PAC behind Georgia ($37.1 million) and Pennsylvania ($34.1 million).

Georgia and Pennsylvania, of course, are two of the most high profile Senate contests in the country; and states where the GOP has rookie candidates prone to making rookie mistakes — former footballer Herschel Walker and Tv personality Mehmet Oz, who seem to be stumbling and bumbling their way through the campaign in their respective states.

Sound like a familiar story, Ohio?

Remember that line from McConnell about "candidate quality?" Here's looking at you, Mehmet. And you, Herschel. And, yes, you too, J.D.

Vance is a candidate who has struggled to raise money. Ryan has raised seven times as much. Vance is finding it difficult to shed his carpet-bagger image, having spent most of his adult life in Silicon Valley, not the Mahoning Valley. Or the Miami Valley. Or the Scioto Valley.

Vance got through the primary with a Trump endorsement, but he has downplayed his Trump ties in the general election campaign — just as Ryan doesn't talk about the fact that he sides with the Biden administration on legislation nearly all of the time.

And there hasn’t been a peep from him lately about one of his applause lines from the GOP primary in which he said he believed Trump was the victim of election fraud in 2020.

Last week, Vance's campaign apparently thought it was a good idea if their candidate jumped onboard Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' Turning Point USA tour, which is supposedly about building unity in the GOP and helping candidates like Vance.

Well, DeSantis held his rally near Youngstown, in Ryan's backyard, and drew a crowd of about 1,500. Most Ohio media rightly refused to cover the event because of the unreasonable restrictions Turning Point USA put on coverage. It was either to cover another phony-baloney rally or take the First Amendment and freedom of the press seriously. Most chose the latter.

DeSantis, by all reports, barely mentioned Vance in his speech, instead focusing on drumming up potential support for a presidential bid in 2024.

What a waste of time by a Senate candidate.

Anne Whitesell, assistant professor of political science at Miami University, said she couldn’t see any benefit for Vance from appearing with De Santis.

"It just showed me that this is more of the culture war and that it's not about Ohio," Whitesell said.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who is an analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he believes there is "a pretty widespread belief that Ryan is ahead, and not by just a couple of points."

Ohio, Kondik said, "is a state where it is very expensive to run TV ads. There are eight media markets you have to cover and it is very expensive."

But Kondik, who is the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the Center for Politics and an Ohio native, said McConnell's remarks at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce were very telling.

"It's true; the slate of Republican Senate candidates around the country is weak," Kondik said. "It doesn’t mean they won't win. But it is definitely a weak field in some very important states."

Whitesell said McConnell and the SLF are rightly worried about Vance.

"Vance has been having a hard time establishing himself as an Ohio candidate," Whitesell said. "He's from Ohio. But he left, made a lot of money and came back to run for the Senate. I just don’t see how he appeals to Ohio."

The $28 million in ads will start just after Labor Day.

The thing about reserving air time for political advertising is that you can always cancel it. And McConnell and the SLF will no doubt be closely monitoring the polling in Ohio, particularly through their own internal polling.

If, at some point, they see Vance surging ahead in the polls, they could cancel the ad buy and worry about other races.

But if those ads are still on air by mid-October, you can rest assured they are worried.

If that happens, McConnell may well be up at 3:30 a.m., pacing around the house and raiding the fridge.
Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.