Apr 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

J.D. Vance tells associates he plans to run for Senate in Ohio

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

J.D. Vance, venture capitalist and author of "Hillbilly Elegy," has told friends and colleagues that he plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Axios has learned from multiple sources.

Why it matters: He'll need to reconcile his growing antagonism to Big Tech with a career that's been facilitated by it.

State of play: Vance, who's been both celebrated and criticized for his "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ethos, would be entering a crowded GOP primary field.

  • His goal, according to one source, is to present himself as a bridge between Trump and establishment Republicans, particularly because it may be tough to out-Trump former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
  • That said, he's sought Trump's counsel. Vance recently met privately with the former president at Mar-a-Lago, with Peter Thiel in tow, per multiple sources.

Resumé: Vance began his VC career with Mithril Capital, a Silicon Valley firm founded by Thiel.

  • In 2017 he joined Revolution, the Washington, D.C.-based firm co-founded by Steve Case, to work on a Rise of the Rest initiative that sought to fund startups outside of traditional VC ecosystems.
  • Then, two years later, he and Rise of the Rest colleague Colin Greenspon left to co-found Cincinnati-based Narya, which raised over $90 million for a debut fund from investors like Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Eric Schmidt and Scott Dorsey.

Both Rise of the Rest and Narya fit into Vance's personal narrative of helping seed success in left-behind geographies. For example, the firms were early investors in AppHarvest, a Moorehead, Ky.-based indoor tomato-grower that later went public via SPAC.

  • AppHarvest yesterday announced Vance's departure from its board.
  • One media report suggested the decision was tied to Vance's recent tweets about the Georgia voting law, but Axios has learned that Vance informed AppHarvest of his intentions just before a board meeting during the week of March 22. He told fellow directors that he was likely to run, and didn't want AppHarvest to become politicized.

Candidate Vance would need to at least take a leave of absence from Narya, which hasn't finished investing its fund.

  • Expectations are that Narya's two other partners — Greenspon and former VentureOhio CEO Falon Donohue — would hold down the fort, with Thiel's blessing.
  • Vance declined comment, and has not publicly discussed his electoral plans, while neither Greenspon nor Thiel responded to Axios' inquiries.

Delicate dance: Vance made his name as an author, but he's made his career as a venture capitalist, backed by many of the coastal billionaires he now plans to rhetorically run against.

  • Earlier this week Vance tweeted: "Establishment Republican apologies for our oligarchy should always come with the following disclaimer: 'Big Tech pays my salary.'"
  • Yet Vance's salary, as a partner with Narya, has literally been paid, at least in part, by two directors at Facebook and the former CEO of Google.

The bottom line: Expect campaign rivals to pounce on the contradictions, while the eloquent Vance will try talk his way around it — banking on the fact that Ohio twice went for a populist billionaire.

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