(CNN)J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and best-selling author who last week entered the Republican primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat in 2022, apologized for criticizing former President Donald Trump in now-deleted tweets.
In deleted tweets first discovered by CNN’s KFile, Vance wrote in 2016 that he would not vote for Trump in the presidential election and instead] support Evan McMullin, a former CIA operations officer who ran as an independent. Vance also called Trump “reprehensible.”
“Trump makes people I care about afraid. Immigrants, Muslims, etc. Because of this I find him reprehensible. God wants better of us,” he wrote in October 2016.
In another deleted tweet — this one sent following the fallout of the infamous Access Hollywood tape — Vance wrote, “Fellow Christians, everyone is watching us when we apologize for this man. Lord help us.”
And in a tweet from March 2017, he wrote, “In 4 years, I hope people remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him the most aggressively.”
But as he gears up his Senate bid, Vance has changed his tune as he vies against a crowded field for the former President’s base. The GOP primary to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman also includes Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer; Jane Timken, the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party; and businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons.
Trump’s centrality in the GOP fight reflects how the former President remains a political force in the Buckeye State. All of them are fighting over who is the most authentically pro-Trump candidate.
On Fox News on Monday night, Vance said he regretted making his earlier comments and asked viewers not to judge him on his past statements.
“Like a lot of people, I criticized Trump back in 2016,” Vance said. “And I ask folks not to judge me based on what I said in 2016, because I’ve been very open that I did say those critical things and I regret them, and I regret being wrong about the guy.”
Vance added that he thought Trump was a good president and that “he made a lot of good decisions for people, and I think he took a lot of flak.”
“I think that’s the most important thing, is not what you said five years ago, but whether you’re willing to stand up and take the heat and take the hits for actually defending the interests of the American people,” he said.
A fight over Trump’s mantle
Vance’s scrubbing of his Twitter account and subsequent apology on Fox reflect how the Republican primary is turning on the question of loyalty to Trump.
The knives were out for Vance before he even joined the race. Last week, Ohio Republicans received anonymous text messages blasting Vance as a “Never Trumper.” The texts are similar to a flurry of messages sent to voters in April, denouncing Vance shortly after he announced he was exploring a Senate run.
Once considered a perennial swing state, Ohio has trended toward the GOP for the past decade. In that time, Republicans have held every state executive office and the majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Since 2010, only two Democrats have been able to win statewide in Ohio: Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection bid and Sen. Sherrod Brown, who won reelection in 2012 and again in 2018.
Trump, for his part, won the state twice, earning more than 3 million votes in 2020 and improving his share of the vote from four years earlier by 2 percentage points.
Vance’s political fate could come down to how he talks about his transformation on Trump, who he publicly opposed in 2016 in ways beyond his deleted tweets.
During the 2016 campaign, Vance wrote in USA Today, “Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd.” The same year, as it became clear Trump would become the GOP presidential nominee, Vance wrote in The Atlantic that “Trump is cultural heroin,” who “makes some feel better for a bit.”
“He cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it,” added Vance.
Deleting his old tweets are just part of what Vance is doing to reset his public position on the former president.
Earlier this year, Vance met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. He also attended his rally in Ohio late last month. And his connection with the pro-Trump donor Peter Thiel may further help soften any bad feelings Trump could have for Vance.
A spokesman for the Thiel-backed super PAC, Protect Ohio Values, told CNN that Vance “believes deeply in President Trump’s America First agenda and is laser focused on fighting for policies that will benefit Ohio’s mighty Middle Class.”
“Ohioans want elected leaders with the spine to stand up to Washington’s corrupt political class and we’re confident that JD Vance is the only candidate in this race who fits that bill,” added the spokesman.
But national conservative movement, which has started to coalesce around Mandel, has already begun to weaponize Vance’s past statements against him. The Club for Growth’s political action committee, which endorsed Mandel in March, released a statement last week going after Vance.
“He claims to be a Trump Republican, but in the short time Mr. Vance has been active in politics he’s spent the bulk of it tearing down President Trump and mocking Trump voters,” said the Club’s president, David McIntosh.