MIDDLETOWN, Ohio (AP) — Rodney Muterspaw figures J.D. Vance has already shown he’s got what it takes to be a U.S. senator.
Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and a fellow Middletown native, broke out of poverty and family chaos and never forgot his Appalachian roots on his way to success.
“I think he can talk in a way that the average person can understand,” said the retired police chief, who, like Vance, has eastern Kentucky roots. “I’m a hillbilly, and I understand him 100%.”
Muterspaw’s view is at the heart of the fiercest political debate in Ohio. With his 2016 book, Vance helped explain to the nation Donald Trump’s popularity among the white Appalachian working class of his upbringing. Now at 36, the bestselling author is considering whether he can win the votes of the people he claims to know so well.
Vance says he’s “thinking seriously” about running for the Senate seat that Republican Rob Portman is vacating in 2022. Now a venture capitalist, he already has a billionaire backer supporting him and, despite previous criticism of Trump, has met with the former president. But other Republicans are hardly clearing the field, and Vance’s success is likely to hinge on whether the state’s white working-class voters embrace him as a home-state hero or an opportunist.
Muterspaw, 52, splashed some almond milk into his dark-roast coffee at Java Johnny’s, among the trendy restaurants and retail shops that have been popping up along Central Avenue — where there still are some of the “We Buy Gold” storefronts that sprang up during the Great Recession. Middletown is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Cincinnati.
A Republican with mixed feelings about Trump, Muterspaw thinks Vance has the Trump-like ability to connect with GOP voters and a relatable life story.
Vance rose out of a family beset by chaos from his mother’s addictions; from a mill town that was in steep decline and ravaged by opioids as its major employers faltered amid globalization. He joined the Marines, served in Iraq, worked his way through The Ohio State University and graduated from Yale Law School before heading to Silicon Valley in 2014, then returning to Ohio in 2017.
His bestselling book told not only his own story but also highlighted the people of Appalachia and cities like his hometown that feel left behind, and it was embraced by small-government conservatives for depicting poverty as a cultural problem not easily fixed by government programs and aid.
He became a popular TV political commentator, dubbed “the Trump whisperer” for his ability to explain the Republican’s rise to the presidency, and his book became a Ron Howard-directed movie.
Vance didn’t respond to an interview request from The Associated Press. But in interviews and tweets, he’s signaled his interest in the culture war issues popular in the GOP.
At a forum on “Desegregating Poverty,” hosted by veteran civil rights activist Robert Woodford, he argued that addressing the problem of fatherless families, regardless of race, and focusing on the kind of stable home life he lacked are crucial to socioeconomic progress.