A Match Made in MAGA: How a Friendship Helped J.D. Vance Land on Trump’s V.P. List


It was just 43 days before the 2022 Republican primary in Ohio, and former President Donald J. Trump had yet to throw his weight behind a Senate candidate. J.D. Vance, a political novice competing in a packed field, had a huge problem.

He had publicly called Mr. Trump “loathsome” and an “idiot.” Once, he described him as “cultural heroin.”

Then came an unexpected lifeline. “Enough with the lies being told about this guy,” Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, wrote on Twitter, assuring his followers that Mr. Vance had become a fan of his father. A month later, encouraged by his son, the elder Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Vance.

Today, Mr. Vance is one of the former president’s most reliable allies and a leader of a band of Republicans pushing Senate Republicans to the right. And his star has only continued to rise: Mr. Vance is on the list of Mr. Trump’s possible running mates, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

In no small part, Mr. Vance owes his quick ascent into the Trump orbit to his unlikely friendship and ideological kinship with the former president’s oldest son. They text or talk nearly daily and try to meet up if they are in the same city, according to people who know them both. They are a social-media tag team, often reposting each other’s messages.

Although he has stressed that the choice of a running mate is his father’s decision alone, Mr. Trump has said he would be happy with Mr. Vance on the G.O.P. ticket.

The friendship is among the MAGA movement’s more unusual pairings. Mr. Vance, 39, is a self-made man who had a fatherless childhood. Mr. Trump, 46, has been at the right hand of his billionaire father his whole life.

Mr. Vance is wonky and well-spoken, a Yale Law School graduate and memoirist regarded as an intellectual standard-bearer for Trumpism. The former president’s son is sarcastic and foul-mouthed, a sharper reader of people than of policy papers and a political weather vane for his father.

But the men share right-wing, nationalist politics and a vision for how the Republican Party should root out vestiges of old elites. In some ways, they represent the ego and id of the MAGA movement and, some Republican strategists argue, its next wave of insurgency.

Kevin D. Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that for voters seeking a next-generation leader, there was virtually “no one like Senator Vance.” Those same voters look up to Donald Trump Jr., he said. “They know both men.”

Mr. Vance declined to be interviewed for this article. The younger Mr. Trump said in a statement: “In the world of politics you make a lot of acquaintances, but there are very few actual friends. J.D. has become a close friend of mine, and I’m a big supporter of everything he’s been doing policywise to put America First in the Senate.”

As the former president narrows his list of running mates, with his eldest son as an informal adviser, personal loyalty is surely a factor. Mr. Trump has insisted that his former vice president, Mike Pence, betrayed him by refusing to allow him and his allies to manipulate the results of the 2020 election in his favor.

Mr. Vance has made clear that he is no Mr. Pence. He has claimed that the 2020 election was blighted by widespread fraud, an allegation that has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked.

He told ABC News this February that had he been vice president in January 2021, he would have allowed Congress to consider fraudulent slates of pro-Trump electors before certifying the election, a scheme meant to disrupt the transfer of power after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the presidency.

Mr. Vance’s allegiance to the former president is relatively new, but friends say it is deep. In his memoir, Mr. Vance wrote that his upbringing taught him to value “loyalty, honor and toughness.”

The former president helped him edge out his primary opponents, when he could have stood aside. The senator “is an intensely, personally loyal guy,” said Luke Thompson, a close friend who ran the super PAC that backed Mr. Vance’s campaign.

It is hard to overstate the gap in backgrounds between Mr. Vance and Donald Trump Jr. Mr. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a steel mill town, and moved six times in as many years before his grandmother took him in as a teenager.

Mr. Vance’s name tracks his childhood upheaval. He was born James Donald Bowman, after his father, Donald Bowman, who surrendered him for adoption when he was 6. His mother, who battled drug addiction for years, renamed him James David Hamel, erasing his father’s names and substituting the surname of his stepfather, one in a string of fast-disappearing father figures. Mr. Vance later adopted his grandmother’s surname.

Mr. Vance wrote that his mother once threatened to crash their car and kill them both. He watched as she was driven away in handcuffs in the back of a police car. “I have never felt so lonely,” he wrote in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”

Mr. Trump’s home was a luxury apartment at the top of a Manhattan tower with his father’s name on it. In his memoir, “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us,” he recounted how his mother, Ivana Trump, tried to order a glass of chardonnay at a Taco Bell when dropping him off at boarding school in a small Pennsylvania town. News of the incident spread to his new schoolmates.

“Really awesome, Mom. Thanks,” he wrote.

Politically, they were also far apart, even as late as 2017. Mr. Trump was one of his father’s most tireless cheerleaders in his first run for president, echoing his father’s hard-line rhetoric and relishing every opportunity to slam liberals.

Mr. Vance was a former Marine, a venture capitalist and a conservative Republican who was appalled by candidate Trump. In early 2016, he texted a former Yale roommate that he feared Mr. Trump could be “America’s Hitler.” Publicly, he said that Mr. Trump’s policy proposals “range from immoral to absurd.”

He voted for an independent candidate for president.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, pundits celebrated Mr. Vance’s book as a key to understanding the discontent of white working-class voters who had swung the election. Mr. Vance became an overnight media celebrity.

In those days, he held up former President Barack Obama, who also grew up fatherless, as a role model. Mr. Obama was someone “whose history looked something like mine but whose future contained something I wanted,” he wrote in a New York Times opinion essay in January 2017.

But Mr. Vance’s memoir also reveals his pragmatic approach to self-advancement. He wanted to finish college faster, so he doubled his course load. Because the parents of “rich kids” in his hometown were either lawyers or doctors, he wrote, he went to law school. To get Y, do X.

In a Time magazine interview shortly after he announced his Senate run in July 2021, Mr. Vance acknowledged a similar calculus in his conversion from a Never Trumper to a Trump admirer. Mr. Trump is “the leader of this movement,” he said then, “and if I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him.”

Mr. Vance deleted his anti-Trump tweets. He became a regular figure on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, of which the former president was an avid viewer. He hired an adviser to Donald Trump Jr. to help run his campaign. He began working through intermediaries to lobby the former president for an endorsement.

One of the first was Charlie Kirk, a young activist who had carried Donald Trump Jr.’s bags and booked his flights during the 2016 campaign. Mr. Kirk’s group, Turning Point U.S.A., had since built up an impressive following of Republican conservatives.

In early 2021, Mr. Kirk texted an adviser to Donald Trump Jr. about Mr. Vance’s political promise, according to a person familiar with the exchange. Mr. Trump’s response was encouraging: He had read “Hillbilly Elegy,” he said, and he loved it.

That March, Mr. Vance made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., to seek his endorsement. Donald Trump Jr. also attended the meeting, as did Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who was bankrolling Mr. Vance’s campaign.

Mr. Vance did not get what he wanted, but he left hopeful that the elder Mr. Trump would at least keep an eye on his race. Mr. Vance was good-looking, the former president later noted, according to people familiar with Mr. Trump’s reaction, but his opponents were clobbering Mr. Vance with his previous anti-Trump remarks.

Donald Trump Jr. was not put off by Mr. Vance’s U-turn. “Guess who else didn’t like Trump in 2016? Everybody,” he said later. Mr. Vance was at least “consistent and intellectually honest” about why, he said.

People close to both men said their friendship blossomed after Mr. Vance joined the Senate in January 2023. Since then, the public signs of their mutual appreciation have been frequent. Mr. Trump often praises Mr. Vance on social media and on his podcast on Rumble, a right-leaning social media site. (Mr. Vance’s venture capital firm has invested in the platform.)

“We need every GOP Senator to be @JDVance1,” Mr. Trump wrote last December.

Indeed, Mr. Vance is both an energetic, vocal ally to the former president, and one of the leaders of a bloc of roughly a dozen Republican senators who have tried to push the Senate in a more isolationist and Trumpist direction, often clashing with Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.

Mr. Vance worked hard, though unsuccessfully, to stop a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine’s war against Russia’s invasion. For 10 months, he has blocked Biden administration nominees to top Justice Department posts to protest Mr. Trump’s felony indictment on charges of mishandling classified documents.

He has also said that should the former president be elected again, he should fire “every single midlevel bureaucrat” and “replace them with our people.” If stopped by legal orders, he should dare judges to enforce them, he said.

David Frum, a Trump critic and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush who has known Mr. Vance for years, described the senator as an intelligent man with an extraordinary life story who has “sunk to the depths of political degradation.”

But his stances have been applauded by Mr. Trump, who said a willingness to push political boundaries would be a key attribute for his father’s running mate.

While he was not the only one who could fit that bill, “I’d love to see a J.D. Vance,” the younger Mr. Trump told Newsmax in January. “You actually need a fighter.”

Ryan Mac contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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